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When Abdel Nader's well-contested 18-foot fallaway prayer fell through the net on Jan. 30 in front of a smattering of fans in DeKalb, Ill., Kent State's men's basketball season was officially on the verge of shambles.
Nader's improbable shot at the buzzer gave lowly Northern Illinois a stunning 67-65 victory over the reeling Golden Flashes, who suffered their fourth consecutive setback. At this point, perennial Mid-American Conference powerhouse Kent State was sitting dead last in the East Division with a 2-5 league record, and chances at salvaging the 2012-13 campaign appeared to be slipping away.
But the Golden Flashes' three seniors flat out refused to fold.
Instead of letting the losing streak fragment the team, senior stars Randal Holt and Chris Evans -- along with seldom-used spiritual leader Brian Frank -- made the collective decision to sacrifice even more of themselves in order to bring an inexperienced group of struggling Flashes together.
"When we lost to Northern Illinois, a team that we should not lose to, we were sitting at 2-5 in the league," KSU head coach Rob Senderoff recalled. "You look at some other teams that are 2-5 that have good players and what happens, especially with seniors, is that they start to just worry about their own stats and their own stuff. Chris and Randal did the exact opposite. They started worrying about trying to find a way to right the ship."
Their search ultimately proved fruitful.
Since that discouraging loss to the Huskies, the Flashes (17-12, 7-7 MAC) have gone 6-2 -- with the two losses coming in tight contests on the road to defending MAC Tournament champion Ohio (in overtime) and to West Division leader Western Michigan.
An increased emphasis by Holt and Evans on getting other teammates involved led to the emergence of junior forward Darren Goodson and sophomore point guard Kris Brewer, making a more versatile KSU squad much difficult to guard -- and to defeat.
Now Kent State is making a run at a 15th straight season with 19 or more wins, and has the inside track to the fourth seed for the upcoming MAC Tournament.
And Senderoff knows exactly who spearheaded the turnaround.
"That's on them," said Senderoff, referring to his seniors. "They deserve the credit for that, 1,000 percent."
Tonight, those three seniors will likely play their final game at the M.A.C. Center when the Flashes host Bowling Green (12-17, 6-8) on Senior Night. And thanks to their refusal to fold the tent when times were tough, this game carries significance not only as their final home game, but as a crucial one as well.
"It will be a special night for our three seniors," said Senderoff, "two of which have led us on the court, and (Frank) is a leader in the locker room and amongst our players."
Evans was Kent State's sixth man a year ago, when he earned national acclaim as a monster dunker while averaging 9.5 points and 4.1 rebounds. This year he's maintained his status as a ferocious slammer, while taking his overall game up several notches into the realm of the MAC's true elite.
Evans currently ranks fourth in the conference in scoring (17.2 ppg), rebounding (7.7 rpg) and steals (1.9 spg), and has an excellent chance at First Team All-MAC honors.
"Chris Evans is having one of the best individual seasons that a player has had here, and is one of the most improved players from one year to the next that we've ever had here," said Senderoff.
Holt became Kent State's all-time leader in 3-pointers made earlier this season, and has now hit 234 trifectas while playing 129 games in four years for the Flashes. He suffered a major knee injury over the summer and was not able to practice until just days before the season opener, but has still managed to average 14.4 points per game, while shooting 38.2 percent from 3-point range.
"Randal will be in the recordbooks for a number of things, including his winning," said Senderoff. "Of all the active players in the MAC, he has the fourth-most overall wins and the second-most league wins, along with the three seniors at Ohio."
Frank may be the most respected player who barely sees the court in the country. He's a favorite of teammates and fans, who call for his entrance into games whenever the Flashes seem to have things in hand.
Tonight, Frank will start his first and last game for Kent State.
"Brian's a team guy who our kids all respect because of how hard he works every day in practice knowing that he's not gonna play, which isn't easy," said Senderoff.
Thanks to their senior trio, the Flashes find themselves playing their best basketball heading into the stretch run of the 2012-13 campaign, rather than simply playing out the string.
"Our success is a tribute to our seniors, without question," said Senderoff. "We had only one starter (Holt) and two of our top-eight scorers returning this year, and nobody thought that those guys (Holt, Evans) were among the elite players in the league, but both have had that type of season.
"I would hope that our fans would come out to support those guys and support our team in our last home game. We've played our hearts out every time we've been on the floor, and they deserve that recognition in my opinion."