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Rob Senderoff has insisted that his inexperienced Kent State men's basketball team's margin for error this season is ever so slight.
Well mistakes came in bunches in Wednesday's Mid-American Conference season opener against Toledo, and proved way too much to overcome as the Rockets handed the Golden Flashes a 70-58 setback before a sparse crowd of 2,178 at the M.A.C. Center.
"We did not play well at all in any facet," said Senderoff. "We had a lot of guys struggle in a lot of different areas. Give them credit for playing well on the road and making the plays they needed to win the game."
The loss snaps a 31-game winning streak against MAC West Division foes for Kent State that dates back to a loss in Toledo on Jan. 2, 2008, when current Ohio University head coach Jim Christian was the leader at KSU. The Rockets (5-7, 1-0 MAC) also earned their first win in Kent since 2000, while the Flashes suffered just their ninth league loss at home since the start of the 2003-04 season (69-9).
Kent State (9-6, 0-1) saw its four-game winning streak come to a close, and is now just 6-4 at home this season.
Shooting woes plagued the Flashes, who shot 32 percent overall from the field (18-of-56) and 16 percent from 3-point range (3-of-19). Those numbers tumbled to 29 percent from the field (8-of-28) and zero percent from long-range in the second half (0-for-8), when the Rockets outscored Kent State 42-33 by draining 56 percent of their shots from the floor.
The Flashes also committed 14 turnovers, including 11 in the first half, helping the Rockets build a 14-2 edge in fastbreak points.
"We didn't guard very well. We didn't execute what we do offensively well at all, as evidenced by how poorly we shot," said Senderoff. "We just didn't play very well in any aspect."
Considering these numbers, its a minor miracle that Kent State even had a chance to win this game down the stretch. But the Flashes did indeed have a shot after a 13-4 run trimmed a 12-point deficit to three at 55-52 with 4:43 to play.
Then the Rockets closed the game with a 10-2 run, effectively putting it away when junior guard Rian Pearson beat the KSU press for a layup and was fouled, pushing the lead to 67-57 with just over two minutes to play.
In a matchup of the MAC's top two scorers, Pearson (19.8 ppg) padded his advantage by outscoring Kent State senior Chris Evans 27-20. Evans (16.7 ppg) started out 3-of-3 from the field and two of them were 3-pointers, but he wound up hitting just 5-of-14 field goals. Meanwhile, Pearson (game-high 9 rebounds) connected on 10-of-19 shots from the floor and 7-of-8 free throws.
"I think I did a good job on him for the most part, but I think I lost him a couple times in transition and he got a couple and-ones," said Evans, who also grabbed seven rebounds and dished out three of KSU's eight assists. "At the end of the day he scored 27, so I definitely could have done a better job on him."
While the loss was certainly a team effort, the Flashes' starting backcourt suffered through a particularly tough night. Sophomore point guard Kris Brewer missed his first six shots from the field before hitting a couple late layups, but still wound up 2-of-8 for five points with four turnovers and just one assist.
Meanwhile, senior guard Randal Holt's extended shooting slump has now reached a level of deep concern. Holt shot 2-of-15 from the field and 1-of-8 from 3-point range for 10 points. The Flashes' lone returning starter is now clanking away at a 24.5 percent clip from the field over the last eight games (25-of-98), lowering his season field-goal percentage to 32.6 percent. He has only shot over 50 percent from the field once this year.
"At the end of the day, I'll go down with Randal because he's a four-year guy who has helped us win a lot of games," said Senderoff. "He's not playing very well right now. He's gotta shoot a better percentage, and he's gotta defend a little better. He's made so many big plays during his career, he's gotta get himself out of this."
Holt suffered a knee injury during an open gym over the summer, and had surgery in late June. He needed four months to recover, and started practicing full-go just shortly before the season opener.
"He's not injured. He's healthy. It's not like he's walking around limping," said Senderoff. "But he had surgery, he was out four months. He's playing as hard as he can play, and he's just not playing very well right now. He's not nearly as explosive as he was last year, and I don't think two weeks from now he's gonna be as explosive as he was last year. I do think that's hurting some of the finishes he normally makes. In the past years he's been one of our best finishers, and he's struggling to finish at the rim."
Toledo sophomore point guard Julius Brown struggled from the field (2-of-13), scoring just seven points, but he handed out 10 assists -- two more than the entire Flashes team. Senior guard Dominique Buckley added 15 points and buried back-to-back 3s to push Toledo's narrow three-point halftime lead to 12 early in the second half.
Junior swingman Bryson Pope added 10 points and eight rebounds off the bench for the Flashes, who will visit Ball State (7-6, 1-0) on Saturday.