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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Losses just keep getting more and more difficult to fathom for the Kent State men's basketball team.
The Golden Flashes were a five-foot floater away from handing defending Mid-American Conference Tournament champion Ohio its first league setback of the season on Saturday. But senior Randal Holt's shot caromed off the back of the iron, and the Bobcats (15-5, 6-0 MAC) escaped with a thrilling 69-68 triumph before a lively crowd of 5,453 at the M.A.C. Center.
This bitter defeat makes it three straight losses for Kent State (11-9, 2-4), beginning with a gut-wrenching four-point home setback to backyard rival Akron a week ago, and with a clunker at Bowling Green sandwiched in between.
"With (six) seconds to go you get the ball into Randal Holt's hands in transition on the run, and he gets it to four to five feet. There's not much more you can ask for," said Flashes second-year head coach Rob Senderoff. "You can ask for it to go in."
A pair of free throws by Bobcats star senior point guard D.J. Cooper (game-high 23 points, 5 assists) gave Ohio a 69-68 lead with 55 seconds left.
Kent State senior guard Chris Evans, who played a brilliant all-around game (20 points, 7 assists), was then called for traveling after he stumbled while trying to drive past Ohio senior guard Walter Offutt with 42 ticks remaining.
The Flashes got the stop they needed, as KSU sophomore guard Kris Brewer partially blocked an attempted 3-point heave by Cooper as the shot clock was about to expire. Evans grabbed the ball and handed it to Holt, who raced downcourt as the final seconds washed away.
"I didn't have a timeout, but to be honest I probably wouldn't have called one if I did have it," said Senderoff. "(Holt) drove down the lane, got into the paint and he just missed a five-foot floater. He's made a lot of those types of shots in his career. He's struggled obviously this year to make them."
Holt is never afraid to put the game in his hands, and he has indeed delivered in the clutch on countless occasions during his career -- the latest coming last November, when he drained a 15-footer with a second left to give Kent State a 69-68 home victory over Bethune-Cookman.
But after starting this season strong offensively, Holt has struggled since early December. His 3-point shooting has been solid (36.7 percent), but Holt is now shooting 31 percent from inside the arc -- including an 0-for-6 effort on Saturday that was capped by his last-second miss.
"There was only about six seconds left, so I just wanted to get it and go and try to get the best shot available," said Holt (14 points, 3-of-6 3-pointers), who had off-season knee surgery in late June after suffering an injury during an open gym and did not return to practice until days before the season opener.
"It's a shot I take and make a lot of times, a very good look, but it just didn't drop. It's tough. I just gotta keep playing, stay confident, and dig deeper," Holt said.
While fans will remember Holt's last-second miss, Senderoff found himself recalling his team's 20 turnovers, including 13 in the second half, which played a much bigger role in the loss than the final shot.
"It's hard when the game's at the end and it's a one-point game, you can always look at the last play and the last shot. But there are so many possessions in between, and that's where the game gets lost," said Senderoff. "In the second half we had too many unforced turnovers. To start the second half we had four in a row."
Those miscues helped the Bobcats quickly erase a 36-32 halftime deficit with a 7-2 run to start the second half. Kent State recovered just as quickly, pushing its lead back up to 44-39 before another barrage of turnovers aided a 14-2 run capped by a Cooper 3-pointer that gave Ohio a 53-46 edge with 11:32 left.
The Flashes trailed 60-52 with 7:46 to play after a layup by Ohio junior Nick Kellogg (10 points), but orchestrated a stunning 13-0 run culminated by a 3-pointer and three-point play by Evans that put Kent State up 63-60 and whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
"We made an unbelievable comeback, showed tremendous toughness and heart," said Senderoff. "With three minutes to go if you would have told me we're up three with the ball, I'd say OK, we just gotta finish this out. And we haven't been able to. We've gotta find a way to get over that hurdle, because we'll be in this situation again at some point. We had these situations at Ball State and Buffalo where we did finish it out, but we haven't done it at home against Akron and Ohio."
A free throw and layup by senior forward Reggie Keely (20 points) tied the game, setting the stage for the frantic final minute.
At least one man with Kent State ties left the M.A.C. Center happy Saturday night -- Ohio head coach Jim Christian, who guided the Flashes to 138 wins and two NCAA Tournament appearances from 2002-08. His Bobcats earned their seventh consecutive victory and remain tied atop the MAC East Division with Akron, who rallied to defeat Buffalo on Saturday.
"That was a 40-minute college basketball game played unbelievably hard by both teams, in a great environment," said Christian. "Rob did an unreal job of getting his team ready to play after two losses. Holt had a great look at the end, but it didn't go, and now we have a happy three-hour bus ride home."
Meanwhile, Senderoff and the Flashes find themselves in desperate need of a win as they head into Wednesday's road game at Northern Illinois.
"Last Saturday, it was a really tough loss where we played incredibly hard, and we did not respond very well (in the next game at BG)," said Senderoff. "I'm putting it on Chris Evans and Randal (Holt) for us to respond on Wednesday. My seniors have to step up and take the responsibility of making sure our team is focused and plays as hard at Northern Illinois as we did tonight.
"When you lose a game like this it's not easy to bounce back. But we have to bounce back."