TOLEDO _ This was no team of destiny.
Fate did not see fit to scoop the snakebitten Kent State women's basketball team into its sympathetic arms and carry it through the Mid-American Conference meatgrinder.
The Basketball Gods didn't smile on a group that has trudged off the court wearing dejected frowns for four of the past six years, having come up short in the MAC title game on each occasion.
No ladies and gents, your Golden Flashes are the undisputed queens of the MAC in 1997-98 for two simple, yet certainly solid reasons: they worked the hardest and they played the best.
Better than all 18 conference foes they conquered during the regular season. Better than Ball State and Ohio, their first two MAC Tournament victims. And even better than their age-old nemesis, the Toledo Rockets, whom Kent State (23-6) fittingly bounced 64-56 Monday night at the SeaGate Centre to claim its first-ever MAC Tournament championship.
A long-awaited championship that no one in the conference has any right to question.
"This was a long time coming," said center Anne Chicorelli, one of three seniors _ along with forward Carrie Templin and guard Ashley Bland _ who now possess the final piece of the puzzle they sought to make their careers complete. "I think it came down to who wanted it more. Everyone on this team is on the same page, and we were all willing to do whatever it took to win the title. We all had the same goal, and to reach it just feels awesome."
Collectively, they shared the same goal. And they all did their fare share to make sure their mission was accomplished, although sophomore point guard Dawn Zerman's effort was above and beyond the call of duty.
Zerman, somehow deprived of postseason accolades by the MAC, took it out on the Rockets (24-6) to the tune of 13 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and two steals. Her collective effort over the course of the season failed to earn her even honorable-mention honors. But her performance in the MAC Tournament _ especially against the two-time defending champion Rockets _ earned her the most valuable player award.
"I had a premonition that she'd come out and prove everybody wrong," said Toledo coach Mark Ehlen, shaking his head.
She did by flat-out taking the game over down the stretch.
After MAC player of the year Kim Knuth single-handedly brought Toledo back from a nine-point deficit to within 56-54 with 5:19 to play, Zerman slapped on her cape and went to work.
She hit a pullup jumper in the lane to halt the Rockets' run before ad-libbing the play that will go down in the KSU annals as the one that secured its first MAC title.
With the shot clock winding down, Zerman ducked her head and drove toward the basket. And Knuth, who had already amassed four fouls, gave her a slap as Zerman raced toward the basket.
The whistle blew. And the game, for all intents and purposes, was over.
"It wasn't a designed play," said Zerman. "I didn't even know I was going at her."
Zerman made both free throws to give Kent State a 60-56 lead with 2:29 left, and she made another with 35 seconds left to seal the victory.
"Dawn's a gamer," said Kent State coach Bob Lindsay, flashing a rare postgame smile. "The more pressure, the bigger plays she makes. When the game's on the line, she'll do whatever it takes ... points, defense, she does it all."
Meanwhile, the Rockets, without Knuth, failed to score a single point in the final 2:29. Knuth entered the game averaging over 22 points, but finished with a measly 10 points and an astounding nine turnovers as Bland, Alana Bader and company took turns hounding her all night long.
Which brings us to the primary reason the Flashes were able to run roughshod over the MAC: defense.
"Defense, defense, defense," said Chicorelli. "I just can't say enough about what everyone on this team puts into defense. That's why we win, no doubt about it."
That swarming defense forced "just" 18 turnovers against the Rockets, although it still had its intended effect according to Lindsay.
"We rotated a lot of kids on Knuth and I think we wore her out a little," he said. "And while our press didn't turn them over that much, I believe we did wear them down. That was a huge factor in the second half."
The Rockets did indeed seem to lose some steam as the game progressed.
Toledo jumped out to a 7-2 lead and led for most of the first half. The Rockets outrebounded Kent State 19-12 and shot 52 percent from the field to earn a 35-32 advantage at the break.
But weary legs and waves of Flashes seemed to overcome the Rockets in the second half.
Toledo scored just four points in over eight minutes to start the final period, while Kent State slowly pulled in front. And the Rockets wound up with just 21 points for the half while shooting a meager 36 percent.
"We were getting open looks and we knew eventually our shots would fall," said Zerman. "We just had to play tough defense in the second half to win."
And, as usual, everyone did.
Reserves Julie Studer and Jenny Kempf not only played good defense inside along with Chicorelli, but they also made major contributions offensively. Studer, a true freshman, scored 10 points in the first half and a game-high 14 overall, and Kempf added 12 points and four rebounds.
"It was a total team effort," said Chicorelli. "Just as it's been all season long."
Together as always, the Flashes finished off a stunning 21-game march through the MAC without a single setback. And they didn't need one iota of outside help to do it.
"I don't know who may do this in the future, but I can't say enough about what this team has done," said Lindsay. "We've got some gamer kids, and I'll just leave it at that."