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Nothing has come easily for Randal Holt during his senior season.
From a major offseason knee injury to a pair of lengthy midseason shooting slumps, Kent State's lone returning starter has faced much more than his fair share of adversity during the 2012-13 men's basketball campaign. But the 6-foot-1 senior guard has kept plugging away through all the difficult times, doing his best to provide the leadership necessary to give his team a chance to salvage the season with a strong finish.
That persistence is now being rewarded.
Holt and his Golden Flashes are playing their best basketball when it matters most, winning five in a row and seven of their last eight games heading into this week's Mid-American Conference Tournament, and are widely considered the most likely candidate in the field to knock off heavily favored top-seeds Akron and Ohio.
"I definitely think we're building momentum," said Holt, after the Flashes spoiled the Zips' Senior Night with a 68-64 triumph in Akron last Friday night. "Now we're going into the MAC Tournament confident, just ready to win."
That's a statement no one was making after a disastrous month of January, which ended with four straight losses that left Kent State sitting last in the MAC East Division at 2-5. But Holt and the Flashes have come along way since hitting rock bottom on that Jan. 30 evening in DeKalb, Ill.
Last summer Holt found himself preparing to be thrust into a leadership role for the first time in his career.
The former Cleveland Glenville High School star had been a key member of veteran Kent State teams over the past three years, playing in 100 games and starting as a sophomore and junior. But his role on those squads was essentially to make shots, particularly game-winners come crunch time, while others took charge of the team.
But this year was going to be different. Much different.
"I chose not to bring some players (on last year's roster) back because I thought is was in the betterment of our program long-term," said second-year KSU coach Rob Senderoff. "I knew for the short-term that it would put more on Randal. Had I known that he was going to be out for four months I may not have done that."
Not long after those decisions had been made, Holt suffered a knee injury while taking part in an open gym last June. He had surgery on his left knee at the end of that month, and was unable to practice full-go until just days before the Nov. 9 season-opener against Drexel.
"He didn't play for four months during our summer and all of our fall, when he's the only returning starter and you have eight new players on the roster," said Senderoff. "It's tough when you're the leader and you're not doing anything, you're sitting there on the sideline. It has been a difficult situation for him. But he's handled everything great. He's been a leader."
Holt led the inexperienced Flashes to a surprising 5-2 start in the month of November, and even hit a 15-foot jumper in the final second to give Kent State a 69-68 win over Bethune-Cookman. But the smooth start suddenly turned extremely rocky.
Holt suffered through a miserable December, shooting a dismal 18-of-71 (25 percent) in six games. Despite his struggles the Flashes still managed to close the month with three straight wins, but eventually they were going to need their senior sharp-shooter to regain his touch for the winning to continue.
Holt did just that, scoring 43 points in back-to-back road wins at Ball State and Buffalo that pushed Kent State's record to 11-6 overall and 2-1 in the MAC. But an even more devastating slump for Holt and the Flashes quickly followed.
Kent State had mighty Akron on the ropes in a mid-January game at the M.A.C. Center, but let a 10-point halftime lead slip away and fell 71-67. Holt hit just 1-of-11 shots from the field that day, and had a short runner go in and out that would have tied the game in the closing seconds.
That tough setback was followed by an ugly 15-point loss at Bowling Green. Holt then had a chance to beat Ohio in the closing seconds in Kent, but his five-foot runner hit the back of the iron and the Bobcats escaped with a 69-68 victory.
Then came an embarrassing 67-65 loss at Northern Illinois, which had scored 25 points in its previous contest at Eastern Michigan. Holt shot 4-of-17 from the field and 1-of-10 from 3-point range in that one, leaving him 15-of-56 (27 percent) from the field and 7-of-28 (25 percent) from 3 during Kent State's four-game skid.
Following that defeat, a frustrated group of Flashes found themselves at a crossroads.
"There was some soul-searching after the Northern Illinois loss," said Senderoff. "Randal spoke up and I think took some accountability for our team. Then when we got back to Kent we watched the film, and occasionally Randal and I will get into it a little bit and we got into it a little bit there.
"At that point we're 2-5 in the league and have an incredibly young, inexperienced team. It could have gone either way."
TRUST CREATES TURNAROUND
Holt, fellow senior star Chris Evans and respected reserve Brian Frank held a senior meeting after the Huskies loss, and determined that some changes needed to be made. Holt and Evans realized that they had been trying to do too much on their own, and that if the Flashes were going to turn their season around teammates needed to be involved.
"Earlier in the season I can honestly say me and Chris Evans didn't put enough trust in our teammates," said Holt. "As this season's progressed we started trusting our teammates a little more, letting those guys make plays for us, and it's worked out great. Guys are stepping up and playing with a lot of confidence, (sophomore point guard) Kris Brewer and (junior forward) Darren Goodson especially. And the guys on our bench are just coming in and doing what we need them to do."
That renewed emphasis on trust produced immediate results.
After having a negative assist-to-turnover ratio in every contest during the four-game skid, Kent State had 14 assists on 24 baskets compared to 12 turnovers in an 87-72 home win over Eastern Michigan. Those positives kept coming for the Flashes, who had more assists then turnovers in eight of their last 10 contests to close the regular season.
"We did a great job of coming together, holding each other and ourselves accountable and finding our chemistry," said Holt. "Coach Senderoff has done a great job with us. Early in the season it was kind of hard for him trying to coach so many new guys and trying to get them accustomed to what we do at Kent State, just getting those guys used to playing college basketball. And give the three seniors some credit for just leading these guys and showing them the way."
Sharing the basketball helped Brewer and Goodson emerge as scoring threats, taking the heat off Holt and Evans and making the Flashes a much more difficult team to defend. It also helped Holt regain his shooting touch by getting much better looks at the basket.
Holt shot a respectable 46 percent from the field during Kent State's final 10 games of the regular season, eight of which ended in victory as the Flashes vaulted from last in the MAC East at the end of January to the fourth seed in the MAC Tournament by winning seven of their final nine conference games.
Along with trust, Senderoff credits improved health as the key to Holt's strong finish.
"He had a major knee injury in the offseason, and he wasn't able to finish around the basket as well as he did here in the past," said Senderoff. "As he's gotten healthier he's played better. He always works hard, he's got a good attitude. I think he's grown up a great deal from his freshman year to his senior year."
SHOOTING FOR THE NCAA TOURNEY
Holt will leave Kent State as the school's all-time leading 3-point shooter. He's nailed 238 bombs during his four years with the Flashes, and is a career 36 percent shooter from 3-point land. After averaging 12.7 points and hitting 73-of-189 3s a year ago (38.6 percent), Holt is averaging 14.4 points per contest this season. He leads the MAC in 3-pointers made (80-of-207, 38.6 percent again) and free-throw shooting percentage (85.6 percent).
"His mark has certainly been left on this program in his 3-point shooting and his scoring, his free-throw percentage, in his clutch plays and in his winning," said Senderoff. "He's done a great job here with changing his game a little bit and adjusting from year to year. It's not like he came to Kent known as being an unbelievable shooter, but he's really worked on it and found a niche. He's one of those guys who should always be able to come back here and know that he had a great individual career and that his teams were always successful."
The Flashes have gone 89-46 during Holt's four years, winning regular season MAC titles in 2009-10 and 2010-11, and his leadership has helped turn a senior season that was once headed for disaster into a surprising success.
However, there is still one glaring void in his career that Holt is hoping to fill this weekend.
"This is my fourth and last year here, and I have yet to get to an NCAA Tournament," said Holt. "I have two regular season MAC championships, but the ultimate goal is to win the MAC Tournament and get to the NCAA Tournament. We're just gonna go up (to Cleveland), play our hearts out and leave it all on the floor."