Few things in life are more difficult to swallow than having your dreams dashed by your bitter rival.
The Kent State men's basketball team has endured that bitter pain the past two seasons, suffering narrow losses to arch-enemy Akron in the Mid-American Conference Tournament. The Zips defeated the Golden Flashes 66-65 in an overtime classic in the 2011 championship game, then fell 78-74 to Akron in the semifinals a year ago.
Tonight they'll get a third straight shot at Akron in the MAC Tournament, and they're hoping the third time's a charm.
"It would be great to send Akron home," said senior guard Randal Holt, after the Flashes edged Buffalo 70-68 in a third-round matchup on Thursday. "Especially for me. They sent me home out of this tournament for the past two years, so it would be a great feeling to get this win."
Tonight's semifinal showdown at Quicken Loans Arena will tip off at 6:30 p.m.
Kent State (20-12) snapped a five-game losing streak to the Zips (24-6) in last Friday's regular-season finale, winning 68-64 on Senior Night in Akron. Junior guard Darren Goodson played his best game in a KSU uniform, scoring a career-high 19 points and grabbing eight rebounds. The Zips made several second-half runs after falling behind 40-25 at halftime, but each rally was halted by a clutch Goodson bucket.
The Zips were forced to play without junior point guard Alex Abreu, who was arrested a day earlier and charged with possession and trafficking marijuana. He has been suspended from the team indefinitely. Freshman Carmelo Betancourt took his place in the starting lineup and finished with five points and four assists, but Akron did not score a single fastbreak point without Abreu running the break.
Playing without Abreu gave the Zips an excuse for the loss, but the Flashes don't want to hear it.
"No disrespect to Akron, but when you suit up you're supposed to be ready," said KSU senior guard Chris Evans. "If we would have lost I don't think we would have made any excuses, we would have accepted it for what it was. We're definitely happy we won (last Friday), but that's not the highlight of our season. We definitely want to beat them again when it really counts, and push forward."
The Zips were once in the hunt for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament after earning 19 consecutive wins, including 13 straight victories to open the MAC season. One of those wins was a come-from-behind 71-67 triumph at Kent in mid-January, when Akron erased a 10-point halftime deficit by outrebounding the Flashes 31-13 in the second half.
But the Zips closed the regular season by losing two of three, and now know that they must win the MAC Tournament to make the Big Dance.
Meanwhile, Kent State has bounced back incredibly from a 2-5 start to the MAC season, reeling off nine wins in 11 games since the beginning of February. The Flashes reached 20 wins for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons with Thursday's victory over Buffalo, and are seeking their ninth appearance in the MAC Tournament title game in the past 15 years.
The Flashes are led by Evans and Holt, who combine to average nearly 32 points per game.
Holt started two years ago in the MAC title game loss to the Zips and scored 14 points, while junior forward Mark Henniger played two minutes in that contest. No other player on Kent State's current roster saw action in the game.
Evans was the Flashes' sixth man a year ago, but scored just two points in 11 minutes during the tourney loss to Akron.
While the faces have changed, the recipe for KSU's success has not.
"We've just gotta come out and do what Kent State does," said Holt. "That's play hard defense, execute down the stretch, get stops and get big rebounds. We're just coming in focused on doing that."
Flashes coach Rob Senderoff expects a more focused effort from the Zips, who have now had a week to recover from the stunning loss of Abreu.
"They didn't have any time to prepare for us (last week), so I'm sure they'll make some adjustments," he said. "(Akron coach Keith Dambrot) is a great coach. For us, we've just gotta play as hard as we can for as long as we can and compete on the glass, because they're the best rebounding team in the league. Then we'll see how it goes."