Javon McCrea exorcised a personal demon on Saturday afternoon at the M.A.C. Center.
Buffalo's 6-foot-7, 250-pound senior battering ram hoisted his team on his broad shoulders and carried it to a 78-69 victory over Kent State (15-12, 6-8 MAC), snapping the home team's three-game winning streak while keeping the Bulls (16-8, 10-4) atop the Mid-American Conference East Division standings.
McCrea bullied his way to 31 points and 11 rebounds, sinking 13-of-16 free throws along the way. The Golden Flashes only shot 17 charity tosses as a team, and their aim wasn't nearly good (8-of-17).
The Bulls star has enjoyed monster games at the M.A.C. in the past, but always left without a win. Buffalo entered the contest 0-16 in Kent despite the Herculean efforts of McCrea, who upped his numbers to 89 points and 43 rebounds in four M.A.C. Center games (22.3 points, 10.8 boards per outing).
McCrea averaged 28.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.3 blocks in three games against the Flashes last year -- all losses, including a 70-68 setback in the MAC Tournament.
"When we lost three times in a row to them last year it really hurt me a lot, especially in the tournament," said McCrea, who became the Bulls' all-time leading scorer on Saturday (1,920 points).
"I wanted to come back this season and beat 'em good."
Mission accomplished, as the Bulls swept Kent State during the 2013-14 regular season.
When asked about McCrea, KSU coach Rob Senderoff did not mince words.
"We just to a degree got punked by a great player," said Senderoff. "He was a monster. Best player to ever play at Buffalo, one of the best to play in the MAC as long as I've been here. He's played some of his best games against us. We tried to play zone, tried to play man, tried to double him, it really didn't matter. We didn't have an answer for him."
McCrea started off slow, as did the Bulls.
Sophomore guard Kellon Thomas and senior forward Darren Goodson each buried a 3-pointer to open the game, and Kent State raced out to a 16-5 lead. McCrea didn't score until he hit a pair of free throws with 10:29 left in the first half to make it 16-7, then followed with his first field goal -- a dunk that made it 19-9 at the 9:03 mark.
But once he started scoring, McCrea never stopped.
McCrea wound up scoring 16 points in the final 10:29 of the first half, helping Buffalo wipe out the early deficit and take a 33-32 lead into the locker room.
Kent State overcame a six-point deficit early in the second half, taking the lead briefly at 47-45 on a 3-pointer by junior guard Devareaux Manley. But Buffalo countered with a 3 by Shannon Evans from the corner, which nearly bounced over the backboard before falling through the net.
That fortunate bounce ultimately gave the Bulls the lead for good, igniting a 16-2 run that put the visitors in control. Ironically McCrea only scored two points during the spurt, but fellow forwards Will Regan and Justin Moss did major damage.
Regan delivered a huge 3 while Moss, who entered the contest averaging just 3.3 points, scored reeled off six straight points as the lead reached 61-49 with 8:23 to go.
McCrea, Regan (15 points, 3-of-4 3-pointers) and Moss (12 points, 6 rebounds) combined for 58 points and 21 rebounds, while KSU frontcourt mates Khaliq Spicer, Chris Ortiz and Mark Henniger managed just 11 points and 14 boards.
Spicer (3 points, 3 rebounds) had a particularly rough day. He was worked over by McCrea on defense, then failed to finish some great looks of his own on the offensive end. He managed to draw some fouls, but shot just 1-of-6 from the line.
"Our frontcourt today was really poor, and didn't compete on the defensive end the way we needed them to," said Senderoff. "I love Khaliq, but he had a tough day. Some of it is mental with him. He's really struggling from the line, and right now he's in his own head up there. But he's only a sophomore, and I'm asking him to compete against the best player in the league. He's gotta do a better job.
"But it wasn't just him. It's a team thing."
The Flashes made one last run, trimming the deficit to 72-67 with 2:12 left on a 3-pointer by Manley. They then forced a miss by McCrea but couldn't corral the rebound, giving McCrea another opportunity that he cashed in for a three-point play that effectively ended all doubt.
"Another Javon McCrea catch one inch (from the basket) and layup, and soft ticky-tack foul by us ... I'm not saying we didn't foul, but it was a soft foul," said Senderoff. "He's a good player, but we've gotta compete."
Kent State remained competitive until the end thanks to solid play from its guards. Thomas continued to shine as a starter, finishing with 13 points and four assists with no turnovers. Junior guard Kris Brewer scored a team-high 16 points but shot just 6-of-16 from the field, while Manley (11 points) and junior Derek Jackson (10 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) also reached double figures.
"Kellon was great. He's playing with some confidence," said Senderoff. "Our guards today were very good."
Still the Flashes suffered their sixth home loss of the season. But Thomas believes this one to McCrea and company may ultimately serve a productive purpose.
"I think this loss is different than a couple other (home) losses that we had," said Thomas. "I don't think this loss is a step back, I think it's more of a learning process. Even though we did lose I think of it as a step forward, cause this is what the games are gonna be like in the MAC Tournament. When we find ways to win these (types of) games, then I think we'll grow as a team."
The Flashes will play a pair of road games this week, at Bowling Green (11-15, 5-8) on Wednesday and at Ohio (19-8, 9-5) on Saturday.
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