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Rob Senderoff sincerely longs to see his overachieving 2012-13 Kent State men's basketball team led by senior stars Randal Holt and Chris Evans go out in style, and he's doing everything he can to make it happen.
With thoughts of last year's disappointing 73-58 season-ending loss at little-known South Carolina-Upstate in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament still fresh in his mind, Senderoff expressed his intense desire to avoid a similar road trip by hosting a first-round game in this year's CIT to Golden Flashes Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen.
Nielsen and the university obliged by investing a portion of the money the school has coming from the Mid-American Conference for faring well in non-league play this season to give Kent State (20-13) a home game in the 2013 CIT, at a cost of $35,000.
Still, the Golden Flashes' second-year mentor knows that the players themselves will need to want it just as much as he does in order for the team to win its home CIT contest tonight against Fairfield (19-15).
"My personal feeling is that this team is a better team than last year's team," said Senderoff, whose first group of Flashes finished 21-12 and also fell to Akron in the MAC Tournament Semifinals. "We're certainly not as experienced and not as talented, but I think we're a better team. Right now we're one win behind last year's team for total wins, and I really want this year's team to match or exceed last year's win total.
"Now, (the players) are gonna have to want it just like I want it."
The Flashes will attempt to bounce back from a crushing three-point loss in the MAC tourney semifinals to arch-rival Akron, which went on to capture the crown by routing Ohio in the championship game. The defeat was especially difficult on Evans and Holt.
One night after playing arguably his best game of the year in a third-round victory over Buffalo, scoring 25 points and grabbing 15 rebounds, Evans went 1-for-11 from the field and fouled out in the final minute with just six points against the Zips.
Holt scored a game-high 19 points against Akron, but missed a pair of 3-pointers in the final seconds that would have given the Flashes a one-point lead.
Senderoff knows that the attitude his seniors bring into tonight's game will set the tone.
"Unless you play in the NCAA Tournament, it really comes down to your seniors and your best players and how they approach things," he said. "If they approach things with a great attitude, usually everybody else follows, and if they approach things with a not-so-great attitude, usually everyone else follows."
Senderoff likes what he's seen so far from his seniors and the rest of his squad since Friday's setback.
"We met for about 10 minutes, then practiced afterward on Sunday. We did't go long, but I was happy with the way we approached practice," said Senderoff. "I anticipate us playing with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I think our seniors are competitive guys, and I don't think they're gonna want to go out losing back-back games.
"But I'm not gonna lie. I thought we'd do that when we played S.C. Upstate too, and I was obviously wrong."
This year's Flashes seem different than last year's batch.
While the 2011-12 squad was a veteran group that ultimately did not reach lofty expectations, Kent State wasn't expected to do much while returning just one starter and two of its top eight scorers this season. The Flashes started the MAC campaign 2-5 but refused to fold, winning seven of their last nine conference games to earn the fourth seed for the MAC tourney. They then gave the Zips all they wanted and more in the semifinal showdown before coming up just short.
Kent State still enters the postseason hot, winning eight of its last 10 games, and Senderoff wants to keep that roll alive.
"I'm gonna play the game like it's a MAC regular-season game," said Senderoff. "I'm certainly gonna make sure that I use our bench, but at the same time I'm not gonna just play guys to play them. I'm not playing this for any other reason than for us to advance in the tournament. And we're gonna have to play well, because (Fairfield is) good."
Obviously no one in Kent is thrilled to be playing in the CIT, but it does give Flashes fans one last chance to see Holt and Evans in action on the M.A.C. Center's parquet floor.
"It'll be the last time you get a chance to see Chris Evans, one of the best athletes to ever play here," said Senderoff. "It'll be the last time you get to see Randal Holt play. For four years he's won 20 or more games each season, and he has a chance to set the single-season 3-point record in the game here (tonight).
He's done a great job of leading an inexperienced team and really played with his heart on his sleeve for four years.
"I hope that our fans come out to support us. These guys have represented the program and this university well all season long, and they deserve it."