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Kent State men's basketball players and fans unleashed a collective exhale after the Golden Flashes withstood a spirited effort by Division II Fairmont State, escaping with a 77-75 victory Sunday night at the M.A.C. Center that wasn't secured until senior guard Isaac Thornton's potential game-winning 3-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer.
Thornton (10 points), a three-time all-league performer for the Falcons, had a good look from the left wing but his well-contested shot fell short.
"I'm glad we won. That goes without saying," said Golden Flashes coach Rob Senderoff. "It certainly was not our best game. I think that goes without saying as well. But we found a way to win. I knew (Fairmont State) was good. I knew that I'd made a mistake scheduling them, and we almost paid for it."
Kent State senior guard Chris Evans came off the bench to bury six 3-pointers on his way to a career-high 27 points, and also grabbed a game-high nine rebounds despite sitting out the first 5:45 of the contest. Evans and sophomore point guard Kris Brewer both did not start after returning to campus late following Christmas break, as both were stranded due to heavy snow that fell the day after Christmas. Evans hit 6-of-10 3-pointers for the Flashes, who nailed 11-of-27 shots from long range as a team. Brewer finished with 11 points, six rebounds and six assists off the bench, while Randal Holt added 10 points.
Evans came out firing, burying four consecutive 3-pointers to turn a one-point deficit into a 28-20 Kent State lead with 7:29 left in the first half. The Flashes had trailed by as many as six points early on, but built their lead to 11 following Evans' fifth 3-pointer of the first half before settling for a 37-31 advantage at the break after Fairmont State closed with a 5-0 run.
Evans finished the first half with 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from long range.
"It was a good shooting night," said Evans. "I got started early. After I seen the first two go in, it felt like it was gonna be a good night for me. My teammates were getting me the ball in good spots, and I was able to knock down shots."
The Flashes (8-5) seemed to have things well in hand midway through the second half, when Evans' sixth 3-pointer pushed the lead to 66-49. But the Falcons (5-3) continued to fight, utilizing an effective full-court press to creep back into the game.
Kent State committed 11 of its 17 turnovers in the second half.
"We struggled with their pressure, and they did a good job flying all over the place and speeding us up," said Senderoff. "My concern for our team is that we had a nine-point lead against Arkansas State and we couldn't stretch it, we had a 17-point lead in this game and couldn't stretch it. Eventually that's going to come back to bite us.
"We have to get better at closing out games, keeping up our defensive intensity, taking care of the basketball, making free throws. You can go on and on."
A 3-pointer by Thornton at the 5:56 mark trimmed the lead to 72-68, capping a 13-2 run by the Falcons. A follow dunk by Evans increased the KSU lead to 76-70, but a jumper by junior forward Brendan Cooper (15 points) and a Thornton free throw trimmed the lead to 76-73 with 1:25 left.
Flashes freshman guard Kellon Thomas then missed a pair of charity tosses, and Malik Stith hit a layup to cut the lead to 76-75 with 37 seconds left. Evans was fouled and hit 1-of-2 free throws with 25 seconds left to set up the dramatic finish.
"Had we lost, it would have been a very tough one to recover from for sure," said Senderoff, whose Flashes will visit Cleveland State Wednesday at 6 p.m. "We'll have to learn from this. We have to move on to the next game and try to get better."
Senior forward Isaiah Hill led five Fairmont State players in double figures with 19 points.