Earl Boykins was a 5-foot-5 man on a mission.
Now usually a player that paltry in size on the Division I college basketball floor wouldn't exactly send shivers up the opposition's spine, even with an attitude. But as Mid-American Conference men's basketball observers have come to know all too well the past four years, Boykins is no ordinary player.
He's something special.
Boykins, coming off a sub-par performance last Thursday at Akron, took it out on the Kent State Golden Flashes Saturday afternoon. He poured in a game-high 30 points, and made every key play down the stretch that allowed the Eagles to turn back a determined effort by the Golden Flashes and escape the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center with a 79-74 victory.
Boykins, who failed to score 20 points for the first time in 10 games in a loss to the Zips, scored eight of the Eagles' final nine points, including a layup with 10 seconds left that sealed the Flashes' fate.
"We just got beat by two potential pros today, flat-out," said Kent State coach Gary Waters, referring to Boykins and his backcourt mate Derrick Dial _ two players Waters recruited while he served as an assistant at Eastern Michigan. "Earl hit some big shots with guys right in his face. We took away everything they wanted to do, but those two jumped up and shot the ball right in our face. That's what happened.
"Beyond those two, they didn't have any better players on the floor than we did."
But Boykins and Dial were enough ... barely.
After a nip-and-tuck start, Kent State (9-14, 6-7 MAC) opened up a 28-19 first-half lead after Scott Effertz, John Callaway and super-sub Nate Meers (Stow H.S.) hit consecutive 3-pointers. But Boykins (12-of-18 field goals, eight assists) and Dial (20 points) scored two buckets each to bring the Eagles (13-8, 9-4) right back, and the two teams ended the first half in a 36-36 stalemate.
The Flashes, playing without top scorer and second-leading rebounder Kyrem Massey (foot injury), were pounded on the boards in the first half for the second straight game. Eastern Michigan finished with 10 offensive rebounds and outrebounded Kent State 25-15 in the first 20 minutes.
"We're not as big as we used to be," said Waters. "We're starting three guards without Kyrem and it's hurting us on the boards. But it shouldn't be as bad as it has been."
Meanwhile, Boykins, after a slow start, finished with 11 first-half points. But he was just getting started.
"I wasn't in my rhythm, but I found it in the second half," said Boykins, a Cleveland native. "I have a rough time playing at Akron and Kent because it's too close to home. I like playing where no one knows me and everybody's against me."
The Flashes went on a 10-2 run early in the second half to take a 50-42 lead after a steal and layup by Callaway. But the Eagles forced turnovers on Kent State's next three possessions and converted them into points, then Boykins nailed a 3-pointer to bring EMU within 52-51 at the 13-minute mark.
"We had a chance to take over the game and we let them back in it with turnovers," said Waters. "Those turnovers turned the game around. And who forced them? The potential pros."
With the game tied at 61, Boykins triggered a decisive 7-0 Eagles run by feeding Dial and Nkechi Ezugwu (11 points, 10 rebounds) for layups, then finding Dial for a 3-pointer following two missed free throws by Ed Norvell.
The Flashes trimmed the deficit to 70-67 with 2:57 remaining when Meers canned back-to-back 3-pointers. But Boykins countered with a clutch 3-pointer from the top of the arc with the shot clock winding down over Callaway.
"That was the Earl we have to have," said Eagles' coach Milton Barnes. "That's the Earl that's capable of dominating games like we need him to."
The Flashes made one last run, crawling to within three once again (75-72) after two Norvell free throws with 45 seconds left. But Kent State mistakenly fouled Boykins on the next possession and he made 1-of-2 free throws.
"We were supposed to foul anyone but Boykins," said Waters, pointing to EMU's 9-of-19 effort from the charity stripe.
Meers then front-rimmed a 3-pointer on Kent State's next possession, ending any hopes of an upset.
Meers (4-of-8 3-pointers) landed in double figures for the sixth straight game (12 points), and led the Flashes with six rebounds, while John Whorton finished with a team-high 14 points.