The names haven't changed. The bodies poured into the blue and gold uniforms have remained virtually the same, give or take a few bumps and bruises.
But that's where the similarities between the Kent State men's basketball team of now and a month ago effectively and abruptly end, as neutral third party Dan Dakich firmly attested on Saturday afternoon.
Exactly one month ago Saturday, Dakich's Bowling Green Falcons blitzed the Golden Flashes by 19 points in a game that was essentially over after the first seven minutes. But the Valentine's Day rematch was much sweeter for a noticeably improved Kent State squad, which outscored the Falcons 45-30 in the pivotal second half to claim a crucial 71-64 Mid-American Conference triumph before 2,383 fans at the MAC Center.
The game was hotly contested throughout, but a few costly turnovers and a slew of missed free throws are all that really kept it close as Dakich acknowledged afterward.
"I think Kent has done a terrific job of improving," said Dakich. "The first time we played them, their defense was soft and their offense was easy to cover. But their kids have gotten better. Kent did a good job today of getting into us defensively, and their guards dominated play overall."
The Flashes (11-14, 8-7 MAC) dominated action early on, rolling up an 11-2 lead after a jumper by former Stow star Nate Meers. But the offense sputtered after a quick start, especially in the final three minutes of the first half.
After John Callaway hit a 3-pointer to put Kent State on top 26-22, the Flashes went scoreless in the final 3:44 of the half. They missed the front end of two 1-on-1 free-throw opportunities and shot themselves in the foot in a variety of other ways, allowing the Falcons (9-14, 6-9) to build a 34-26 halftime lead.
"The same thing happened at Miami," said Kent State coach Gary Waters, referring to a late first-half lull that led to a 10-point halftime deficit against the RedHawks. "And again, it was caused by one thing: turnovers. It wasn't anything they were doing. It was all us.
"I told our players that the first five minutes of the second half would determine who wins the game. We came out in a press because they were in foul trouble and they have several players injured, so I knew we could wear them down. And I also said the only way we could beat them was to hurt them inside."
Waters put the pressure squarely on sophomore center John Whorton's shoulders at halftime. And he responded with a layup and a putback to get the Flashes right back in the game in the first 30 seconds of the second half.
"Coach said at halftime we had 10 guys playing hard and one guy letting down, and that it was time for him to step up," said Whorton, who finished the first half with four points and one rebound. "I knew who he was talking about. And I came out the second half with a purpose."
Kirk Cowan (19 points, 13 rebounds), BG's rangy center, scored seven straight points to keep his Falcons in front. But Whorton (14 points, seven rebounds) responded with a drop-step dunk and a layup off a nifty feed from Ed Norvell to give the Flashes their first lead since the first half, 53-51, with 6:40 remaining.
Bowling Green regained the lead on a 3-pointer by Dubrey Black, but Norvell (4-of-6 3-pointers) immediately retaliated with a trey of his own to give the Flashes the lead for good.
Jose Davis, playing perhaps his most solid overall game at point guard this season, stroked a 3-pointer then hit a runner as he was fouled and added the free throw to give Kent State a 65-58 lead with 1:40 remaining.
"Jose was the key to the game," said Waters. "He's not afraid to step up and take the big shots, and he took control of our offense when we were having trouble getting the ball up the floor and getting into it."
The Falcons cut the lead to 65-62 after two free throws by Tony Reid and had one last chance to tie after Norvell missed two free throws. But BG failed to convert, and Whorton rebounded and made two free throws after he was fouled to seal the victory with 37 seconds left.
The win all but assures the Flashes, currently sixth overall in the MAC, of a spot in the conference tournament.
"One more win and we're a shoe-in," said Waters. "This was a huge week for us. We feel pretty good about what's happening here."
Davis finished with 17 points and five rebounds, and turned the ball over just one time in 29 minutes. Norvell added 15 points and seven assists while holding Reid, Bowling Green's leading scorer, to just 10 points. Reid (ankle) and backcourt mate DeMar Moore (knee), the Falcons' top two scorers who both played injured, combined to score just 17 points.