Wednesday evening should have been a time for the Kent State men's basketball team to rejoice.
The Golden Flashes had just emerged from a brutal battle against Eastern Michigan at the M.A.C. Center with a 76-64 victory that, combined with Akron's loss at Miami, vaulted them into first place in the Mid-American Conference East Division all by themselves.
But instead of celebrating their landmark triumph they found themselves praying for junior forward Kyrem Massey, who suffered an ankle injury that stripped virtually all the luster off this win.
"I'd take a loss instead of losing Kyrem," said Kent coach Gary Waters. "I'd give back first place to have Kyrem healthy, because he's a guy that will take us to first place at the end of the season when it really matters. This team is very down right now. Kyrem's like a family member."
Massey went down in a heap of humanity to the right of the Eastern Michigan basket with 2:30 remaining in the game and, once bodies were separated, remained on the floor grimacing in pain while clutching his right ankle. He was ultimately carried off the floor.
"He said something snapped," said Waters, with a pained expression. "I just hope it's not broken. The thing that irritates me is that it didn't have to happen. Some guy runs wild inside and falls on his ankle, then another guy falls on him. That stuff happened all game long because the officials never cleaned it up, and that's what's disappointing.
"Things like that shouldn't happen, but they do."
The Eagles (12-10, 6-7 MAC) purposely turned the game into a slugfest after falling behind 32-10, and it paid off as they nearly completed a most improbable comeback.
"We were dominating them," said Waters, "then all of a sudden they made the game ugly."
Eastern Michigan used a zone defense to shut down Kent's inside attack, which brought the Flashes' high-flying offense to a screeching halt.
"Their zone was effective," said Waters. "Our three post players (John Whorton, Rashaun Warren and Geoff Vaughn) combined to shoot 11-of-11 from the field, and you can't do any better than that. The problem was, we couldn't get them the ball."
The Eagles cut the lead to 37-28 by halftime and continued to chip away in the second half, creeping to within 50-48 following a basket by Adam Hess with 8:39 to play. At this point they were pounding the Flashes on the boards unmercifully and also pressuring them into a rash of rare miscues.
But Kent (19-4, 11-3) regrouped long enough to stave off the rally.
Warren, who scored eight points and swatted a career-high five shots in 14 solid minutes of play, bulled his way inside for a bucket to culminate a decisive 6-0 run that pushed the Flashes' lead to 63-53 with 3:49 to play.
Andrew Mitchell (team-high 17 points) and Trevor Huffman (12 points, 6 assists) then salted away the win by hitting 7-of-8 free throws down the stretch.
"You don't like to lose a big lead, but sometimes it happens," said Waters. "We didn't do a lot of things well, but I give our guys credit for fighting back. That's the trait of a champion."
The Flashes managed to win despite giving up 25 offensive rebounds, including 18 in the second half, and committing a MAC season-high 22 turnovers _ 16 by primary ballhandlers Mitchell (8), Huffman (5) and Demetric Shaw (3).
"This is the worst junk I've ever seen," said Waters, while staring at the stat sheet. "We held them to 33 percent shooting from the field, which is the lowest we've held anyone in the MAC, and we shoot 55 percent and we still had to struggle to win. But when you give up 25 offensive rebounds and commit 22 turnovers, you have a good chance to lose a ballgame."
The Flashes avoided losing the game, but Massey may be another story. He was taken to the hospital for X-rays following the game, much to the dismay of his teammates.
"Winning this game and being in first place really doesn't mean anything right now," said Warren. "We just want to get Kyrem back at 100 percent as soon as we can."
Kent State 76, Eastern Michigan 64
Blocked shots _ Eastern Michigan (2): Warner; Kent State (7): Warren 5, Massey 1, Whorton 1. Turnovers _ Kent State, 22-15. Technical fouls _ None. Attendance _ 3,506.