By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
CLEVELAND -- If you're Kent State, you can't ask for a better opportunity.
Randal Holt, the best 3-point shooter in school history, a fearless senior who has came through in the clutch on countless occasions throughout his career, motivated to the hilt by losses in the past two Mid-American Conference Tournaments to arch-rival Akron, with two good looks at trifectas that would have given his Golden Flashes a one-point lead with just seconds remaining in Friday's MAC tourney semifinal showdown at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Flashes' fate was in the right hands. But try as he might, Holt couldn't deliver.
Holt's two misses from long range in the final 15 seconds allowed the top-seeded Zips to escape with a 62-59 triumph over the Flashes and advance to the MAC Tournament Championship Game for the seventh consecutive year. Akron (25-6) will face the winner of Friday's other semifinal between second-seeded Ohio and third-seeded Western Michigan, which was not completed at press time.
Meanwhile, Kent State (20-13) was left wondering what might have been after having its six-game winning streak snapped by the Zips, who sent them packing from the MAC Tournament for the third straight year.
And no one was wondering, or hurting, more than Holt, whose brilliant KSU career will now end without an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
"They were good looks. I shot 'em with confidence," said Holt. "They didn't drop."
Holt scored a game-high 19 points, dished out five assists, made three steals and simply gave it everything he had from beginning to end to give his Flashes a chance.
"He really, really wanted this game," said KSU head coach Rob Senderoff. "Of course, as a coach I feel like he deserved for those shots to go in, but unfortunately they didn't. They were two pretty good looks I thought."
Those looks, and several others the Flashes received throughout the contest, were good. But their shooting and decision-making at times was not, as they shot just 35.7 percent from the field and committed 12 turnovers -- including some costly ones down the stretch.
Kent State overcame a block party by 7-foot Akron center Zeke Marshall, who swatted away seven shots on the night, while also registering 18 points and 10 boards, to take a 57-54 lead following a steal and 3-pointer by Holt with 4:11 left. At this point, Marshall was on the bench with four fouls and Flashes senior star Chris Evans looked to take advantage by bulling his way to the basket. He did just that, tossing up a shot that ticked off the rim a few times then bounced away.
"That basically sums up the night, getting good looks right at the basket and them not falling," said Evans. "Akron played great defense. It was a frustrating night for me."
Similar shots all fell the previous night for Evans during his monster 25-point, 15-rebound effort against Buffalo. But he struggled immensely one night later against the Zips, scoring six points on 1-of-11 shooting from the field.
"It was like halfway down. It looked like it hit every part of the rim," said Senderoff. "If that goes in then we're up five and it may have been a different game, but it rattled out. It was just one of those nights for Chris. Last night everything he put up went in. Tonight, he hasn't shot 1-for-11 all year. It was a tough night for him. Give them credit for that."
Evans, who did not reach double figures for just the third time this year, appeared to be hobbling around a little throughout the night. He suffered an ankle injury late in a game in early February, but denied that it was a factor on Friday.
"No, actually it was OK," he said.
After Evans' miss, the tide quickly turned when menacing Zips junior forward Demetrius Treadwell grabbed his own rebound and fouled out Flashes junior forward Mark Henniger on his putback attempt. Henniger had done his best to bother Marshall all night, constantly fighting to deny him the ball inside.
"It almost looks like he's a fly on Zeke's back," said Senderoff. "Mark fought and scrapped and clawed, he competed as hard as he could. We've had games when Mark's done a better job on Zeke then tonight, but I'm proud of Mark's effort.
Treadwell missed both free throws, but following a turnover Marshall scored inside to bring Akron within 57-56 with just under two minutes to play. Then, after Holt missed a jumper, Treadwell posted Kent State junior Darren Goodson (8 points, 7 rebounds) and scored to give Akron a 58-57 lead with 1:26 to play.
The Flashes attempted to run the shot clock down on their next possession, exchanging short passes out front, but Treadwell (14 points, 12 rebounds) poked the ball away from Kent State sophomore Devareaux Manley. Akron junior forward Nick Harney (11 points) was then fouled by Evans, his fourth of the game, and split a pair of free throws to put the Zips up 59-57 with 55 seconds left.
Evans then attempted to challenge the entire Zips defense, driving hard to the basket, but a wild shot attempt was grabbed by Harney. Evans then took an unnecessary whack at Harney and was called for his fifth foul of the game, forcing him to the bench with 36 seconds left.
Harney missed both free throws for Akron, which extended Kent State's life by making just 13-of-29 charity tosses on the evening. The Flashes called time out with 31 seconds to play, trailing by two with Evans on the bench.
"My thought was that we were having such difficulty finishing at the rim because of Zeke, so we ran a quick-hitter that we wanted for 3," said Senderoff. "With Chris Evans on the bench, who else would I want to shoot it but Randal?"
Holt shook loose and launched a 3-pointer from the right wing that bounced off the rim, but junior swingman Bryson Pope battled for the rebound and it went out of bounds off Akron with 15 seconds left. Holt then inbounded the ball, sprinted to the left corner, got it back and was open. But his potential game-winner hit the rim on his left and bounced away.
"We're not gonna get a better look than what we got," said Senderoff. "It just didn't go in."
Akron senior guard Brian Walsh grabbed the rebound and was fouled, and finally made two free throws to seal the victory as the Zips avenged a home loss to Kent State in the regular-season finale last Friday -- just one day after Zips point guard Alex Abreu was arrested on possession and trafficking marijuana and suspended indefinitely.
The Flashes fell to 1-4 against MAC co-champions Akron and Ohio on the season, with all four losses coming in games that were decided in the final seconds.
Evans picked up his second foul with 8:18 left in the first half and went to the bench scoreless. Akron took full advantage, pushing a narrow lead to 28-19 after a Marshall jumper at the 3:41 mark.
Evans was reinserted despite his two fouls, and finally made his presence felt in a stunning way in the closing seconds of the first half. The high-flying senior dribbled to his left and found an opening to the basket, then switched to his right hand and threw down a one-handed monster dunk over Marshall, who first tried to challenge and then couldn't get out of the way in time to avoid the posterization or the foul.
"It was a huge momentum shift," said Marshall. "When it happened it happened. I just had to move on. I told my team we'll see who wins that game. That's what's most important."
Evans completed the three-point play, helping Kent State trim the lead to 32-29 at halftime despite missing 14 of their first 20 field-goal attempts.
Marshall came out on a mission to open the second half, scoring seven straight points as Akron pushed its lead to 39-31. But Kent State fought right back, reclaiming the lead at 44-43 on a jumper by Holt.
The lead changed hands six times over the last 13:35 and neither team led by more than four points as a typical Flashes-Zips war broke out down the stretch.
"We have tremendous grit and resolve and toughness, and we just came up a little short," said Senderoff. "Give them credit for that."