The Golden Flashes gave away a slew of points, possessions and opportunities, and ultimately gift-wrapped a victory for a most gracious group of Vikings _ who tucked away a most unlikely 75-74 triumph when senior forward Michael Bowens drained a wide-open 3-pointer from the left wing with 1.2 seconds remaining.
Kent State coach Gary Waters' holiday state of mind was more Grinch-like afterward.
"This is a very, very disappointing loss, and it has nothing to do with that last shot," said a visibly perturbed Waters, whose Flashes made just 14-of-28 free throws and turned the ball over 21 times. "Those things happen in life. What I'm disappointed in is that we didn't take control and seize the game when we had the opportunity because of missed free throws and turnovers. We lost this game because of us, not because of anything they did."
The Flashes (2-3) did indeed pave the way for Bowens' game-winning shot by failing to salt away the victory in the closing minutes.
After getting off to what has become a typical slow start, Kent State rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit to forge a 44-44 tie by halftime. The Flashes eventually pulled ahead 61-57 with nine minutes remaining after back-to-back 3-pointers by junior guard Scott Effertz, capitalizing on a near four-minute scoring drought by Cleveland State.
The Vikings (1-3) managed just three field goals in the first 17-plus minutes of the second half, yet still remained within striking distance because of the Flashes' inability to put them away.
A baseline jumper by freshman Kyrem Massey gave Kent State a four-point lead, 71-67, with 3:24 remaining. Cleveland State guard James Madison then tried to answer on the Vikings' next possession, but failed to convert a driving layup as he fell to the floor while closely guarded by Effertz.
CSU coach Rollie Massimino obviously thought Madison was fouled on the play, and was promptly hit with a technical after disputing the call with officials. Massimino was so incensed with the technical that he had to be restrained from confronting the officials by his assistant coaches.
As Massimino continued to rant and rave, Effertz (19 points, 5-of-8 3-pointers) stepped to the free-throw line with the chance to give the Flashes a comfortable six-point lead with 2:39 remaining.
"At that point, we couldn't have asked to be in a better situation," said Waters.
That is until Effertz, a career 79-percent free throw shooter, missed both charity tosses.
"I don't think I've missed two free throws (in a row) since eighth grade," said Effertz.
Massey missed a shot from the baseline on the ensuing possession, giving the previously reeling Vikings a second life. And they took full advantage.
A layup by Madison and a free throw by Bowens trimmed Kent State's lead to a single point with 1:12 remaining. Former Barberton High School standout Mike Perry split two free throws to push the lead to 72-70, but Madison then tossed in a runner in the lane to tie the game with 43 seconds remaining.
"I will give them credit for making the shots down the stretch when they had to," said Waters. "That basket by Madison that tied the game was huge."
Kent State junior point guard Ed Norvell (15 points, 6 assists) looked to be the hero when he tossed in a spinning 8-foot jumper with 10.3 seconds to go to give his Flashes a 74-72 advantage. But Bowens quickly stole the spotlight.
With all eyes focused on Madison, who had nailed two 3-pointers and scored 26 points already, Bowens (17 points) sprung wide open on the left wing and had a clear look at the basket. And he promptly drained just his third 3-pointer in eight attempts this season.
"Mike was designed to be the pop-out man on that play," said Massimino. "We put (Leonidas Skoutaris) in one corner and Madison in the other and tried to draw defenders to them. The kids executed the play perfectly."
However, execution was sorely lacking on the other side.
The Flashes, who are shooting a meager 50 percent from the free-throw line as a team this year, made just 2-of-6 free throws in the final five minutes. They also missed several dunks and committed a multitude of unforced errors throughout the game.
"The issue on this team right now is substance and style," said Waters. "We need to make these young kids understand that they need to play with substance, not style. We had four or five opportunities to score easy baskets, but we missed dunks instead of just laying the ball in. And another thing you just can't have is poor free-throw shooting.
"That team shouldn't have been within 10 points of us, but we just didn't do what was necessary to win the game. And that's very disappointing."