TOLEDO _ Bob Lindsay has watched his Kent State women's basketball team play better than it did in Sunday's Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinal game against Western Michigan.
Much, much better, as a matter of fact.
The Golden Flashes have shot better, handled the ball better, executed better, and won bigger because of it.
Funny thing is, he's never been more proud of his young squad than he was after watching Kent State gut out an unsightly 60-50 victory over the stubborn Broncos at the SeaGate Centre.
"I know it sounds trite, but we did what we had to do," said Lindsay, whose defending MAC Tournament champion Flashes (22-6) will battle top-seeded Toledo (24-5) in the championship game for the fourth straight season tonight at 8 p.m. "Offensively we struggled, but we made the shots when we needed too. But offense didn't win this game.
"I thought we played as well defensively as we have all season, and I'm real proud of that effort. Defense is why we're playing for a championship."
The Flashes held the Broncos to 31-percent shooting from the field, forced 19 turnovers and prevailed even though they never found anything remotely resembling a flow offensively.
They survived thanks to a stifling defense that was at its very best when it mattered most.
After leading by as many as eight points in the first half, Kent State had to settle for a mere 25-23 edge at the break after missing several shots from short range in the closing minutes.
A see-saw second-half battle ensued, and the Flashes were left clinging to a 49-46 advantage with five minutes remaining. That's when Kent State freshman forward Jamie Rubis delivered the somewhat controversial play of the day.
Rubis caught a pass inside from Emily Fakes, was fouled and tossed up a 10-footer that found the mark but seemed to have been unleashed well after the whistle. However, the officials counted the basket, and Rubis completed a pivotal three-point play that put Kent State up 52-46 with 4:37 remaining.
"I don't want to say anything that'll get me in trouble, but that was a critical call," said Western Michigan coach Ron Stewart. "I thought we had awfully good help on the play, but they still come away with three points. That was too much for us to recover from."
Kent State's defense made sure there would be no recovery.
Junior point guard Dawn Zerman, who had as fitful a day offensively as anyone (6-of-18 field goals, 17 points), poked the ball away from Bronco freshman Brooke Gallert at midcourt, ran it down and tossed in a layup that gave the Flashes a 54-46 lead with 2:56 left.
An eight-point cushion was more than enough for Kent State because the Broncos simply couldn't score. In fact, they failed to even get a shot off in their next three possessions against Kent State's smothering defense, which all ended in shot-clock violations.
"We acted like we had a couple more seconds (on the shot clock)," said Stewart. "But that's a case of Kent turning up the defense at the end. We had trouble scoring, but that's just the way Bob's teams play."
Western Michigan produced just five points in the last 5:35, two of which were scored with five seconds left.
Zerman (7 rebounds), sophomore center Julie Studer (14 points, 6 rebounds) and Rubis (11 points) helped the Flashes muster enough offense to survive, while seniors Maureen Zolik (5 assists) and Jenny Kempf (4 points, 3 rebounds) _ who's still recovering from a bout with mononucleosis _ gave Kent State a huge spark off the bench.
Not exactly glowing numbers, but a glowing showing nonetheless in Lindsay's eyes.
"We had our backs to the wall, but we shut them down for the last five minutes," said Lindsay. "I'm really proud of this team. They always seem to find a way."