By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
What you do when your arch-rival and chief nemesis is down? When the team that's been your worst nightmare over the past few seasons suddenly finds itself in a stunning state of vulnerability?
You kick 'em. Hard as you can.
That's exactly what Kent State did to Akron on Friday night in front of a packed house at James A. Rhodes Arena and a national television audience. The Golden Flashes gave a shaky group of Zips still reeling from the loss of junior point guard Alex Abreu to a drug arrest on Thursday a swift boot in the gut by earning a 68-64 victory that spoiled their Senior Night and gave them their first home loss of the season.
"We had this attitude where we just didn't want to lose. We're tired of losing to Akron," said Kent State senior guard Randal Holt. "They had beaten us five straight and put us out of the MAC Tournament the past two years, so it feels good to come in here and get a win.
"I'm proud of our team. Now we've just gotta keep it rolling and keep moving forward."
A much bigger matchup between Kent State and Akron could be in the cards for next week. If the Flashes (19-12, 9-7 MAC) win their MAC Tournament opener on Thursday, they will face the Mid-American Conference regular-season champion and top-seeded Zips (24-6, 14-2) in Friday's semifinals.
Thanks to Friday's win, Kent State's fifth straight overall and seventh in the past eight games, no team will enter the MAC tourney any hotter than the Flashes.
"Going into this MAC Tournament, I think we're playing our best basketball of the season," said Holt. "I definitely think we're building momentum. We're confident, we know we're playing good basketball. We're just ready to win."
Junior forward Darren Goodson poured in a game-high 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead four KSU players in double figures. Goodson scored 13 points in the second half, hitting one basket after another every time the Zips attempted to rally from a 15-point halftime hole.
"His mindset was to attack, attack," said KSU head coach Rob Senderoff. "He's probably about 6-4, but he's crafty around the rim, and he was able to finish plays and make some shots. We needed every basket that he made."
Sophomore point guard Kris Brewer finished with 13 points and hit 6-of-7 free throws, including four straight in the final minute to put the game away, while seniors Holt (12 points, 5 assists) and Chris Evans (11 points, 7 boards) did their thing as usual.
The Zips obviously weren't their usual selves without Abreu, who was arrested by Akron Police on Thursday and charged with possession and trafficking of marijuana. The Zips did not score a single fastbreak point without Abreu, who is ranked second in the MAC in assists and is tremendous at pushing the tempo.
"Abreu changes the dynamic of their team," said Holt. "He's their floor general, so they're obviously going to be a little bit different team without him."
"I'm sure they miss him," Senderoff chimed in, "but I would hate for that to take away from what our kids did by winning here on the road, where (Akron) hasn't lost all year."
The Flashes won by more than holding their own inside against a Zips squad with much more strength and size. They actually outscored Akron 30-28 in the paint, were out-rebounded just 44-39, and were outscored in second-chance points just 19-17. In the first matchup this season in Kent, the Zips stormed back from a 10-point halftime deficit to win by dominating the Flashes 31-13 in the second half, which led to a 23-8 advantage overall in second-chance points.
Holt and Evans did the bulk of their damage in the first half, helping Kent State take control of the contest.
Kent State weathered the early rush everyone expected out of the Zips on Senior Night, which didn't turn out to be much of a rush at all. After falling behind 6-2, the Flashes reeled off nine straight points to take an 11-6 lead and quickly established themselves as the more energetic and confident club.
Kent State led 21-15 when Evans and Akron's Nick Harney got into a brief brush-up, and a double-technical was called. The exchange only served to fire up Evans, who drained a 3-pointer during an 8-0 run that pushed the Flashes lead to 29-15 and silenced the raucous home crowd.
Moments later, Holt drilled a wide-open 3 from the corner that gave Kent State a 34-18 and forced Dambrot to call a timeout and scream at freshman Carmelo Betancourt, who started at point guard in place of Abreu.
When Holt connected on a runner with a high kiss off the glass, the Flashes had the Zips doubled up at 36-18 before Akron managed to trim the deficit to 40-25 at halftime.
Senderoff couldn't have filled out the first-half stat sheet much better if he'd have done it himself. Nine different KSU players broke into the scoring column, led as usual by seniors Evans (11 points, 4-of-6 field goals) and Holt (9 points). Goodson had six points and six rebounds, helping Kent State play Akron -- one the better rebounding teams in the country -- even on the glass and actually outscore the Zips 13-8 in second-chance points and build a 16-10 advantage in points in the paint. Kent State also had four turnovers compared to eight by the Zips, leading to a 13-2 KSU edge in points off turnovers.
Marshall was held to five points and three boards in the first half on 2-of-6 shooting from the floor, as Akron shot just 34 percent from the field in the first half (11-of-32).
"We played very well in the first half. Our bench was great,:" said Senderoff, who earned his first win over Akron after four losses. "It's a team deal, that's how this works, and I think our team is getting more and more confident as they've continued to play together."
Akron junior forward Demetrius Treadwell attempted to take matters into his own hands to start the second half. He scored in the paint then converted a putback after grabbing two of his own rebounds as the Zips quickly sliced the lead to 42-31. But Goodson retaliated with his first two rally-killer hoops, pushing the advantage right back up to 15.
Akron once again cut it to 11, but Goodson responded with a layup to make it 50-37 with 10:01 to play. Moments later the lead was down to 10 when Goodson hit a pair of three throws.
The Zips then made a legitimate run, using full-court pressure to force several KSU turnovers that helped them trim the deficit to 57-51 with 3:08 to play. But Goodson came to the rescue again, making a layup in traffic then a free throw as the lead went right back up to 62-53.
"For us to find a way to win with 10 turnovers in the second half, they had 14 offensive rebounds, it's a testament to the toughness and resolve of these guys," said Senderoff. "The start of the second half it was one offensive rebound after another. The last time we played them that sort of broke our back, but this time it didn't because our kids refused to let it."
A 3-pointer by Reggie McAdams (12 points) gave the Zips some late life, bringing them within 64-61 with 28 seconds to go. But Brewer was fouled and calmly sunk both free throws, and Holt added a pair of his own with six seconds left to end it.
Without Abreu, the Zips turned into the gang that couldn't shoot straight. They shot 35 percent from the field (25-of-72), 6-of-27 from 3-point range and 8-of-16 from the free-throw line. They missed the front end of two one-and-ones down the stretch that kept them from slicing into the lead.
Marshall led Akron with 14 points and eight boards, while Treadwell had 13 points and 13 boards.
In Thursday's MAC tourney opener, the Flashes will play the winner of Wednesday night's game between the fifth seed and either the eight or nine seed. In the race for the fifth seed, Ball State and Eastern Michigan lead Buffalo and Bowling Green by a half-game.