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Record-Courier staff report
ATHENS -- Don't throw the dirt on the Kent State men's basketball team's 2013-14 season just yet.
The Golden Flashes (16-13, 7-9 MAC) bounced back from a pair of tough losses by turning in their best overall performance of the season Saturday afternoon, when they earned a 75-61 victory over defending Mid-American Conference regular-season champion Ohio (19-10, 9-7) at the Convocation Center in Athens.
The Flashes didn't just win, they dominated a Bobcats squad fighting to earn a bye into the MAC Tournament quarterfinals before 6,820 fans on Senior Day. They also clinched at least a .500 overall record for the 16th consecutive season.
"This was a great team win for us on a day when we knew coming down here and winning was going to be difficult," said KSU coach Rob Senderoff, who earned his first win over best friend and former mentor Jim Christian's Bobcats after absorbing three narrow losses over the past two seasons. "We had to play very well and we did."
While junior guard Devareaux Manley led the offensive charge by draining 5-of-6 3-pointers en route to a game-high 17 points, junior guard Derek Jackson was the hero of heroes. Jackson scored all 14 of his points in the first half, helping Kent State build a 12-point halftime lead, and also held Ohio star senior guard Nick Kellogg to two points on 0-for-6 shooting from the field.
"In the first game, Nick Kellogg scored a lot of points (19) and was able to get out in transition," said Senderoff. "He's a great player."
"Derek Jackson is our best defender, and he did a great job on him to day," Senderoff said. "They're a much better offensive team than they showed today. They struggled to shoot the ball (35 percent from the field). I'm sure some of that was them, but some of it was our defensive effort."
Junior guard Kris Brewer flirted with a triple-double, scoring 12 points while dishing out eight assists and grabbing seven boards, and senior forward Mark Henniger added nine points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 29 active minutes.
Weaknesses that have plagued KSU for months suddenly became strengths on Saturday. Kent State out-rebounded Ohio 41-30, allowed just four fastbreak points, and buried 22-of-25 free throws. As they typically do when they're playing well, the Flashes shot the ball accurately from behind the arc, sinking 9-of-14 3-pointers, but they were also able to more than hold their own in the paint.
"We defended well. We rebounded well. We made our free throws for the first time in what seems like forever," said Senderoff. "And we did a great job on the glass, which we needed to do as well."
After falling behind 8-3 out of the gate, Jackson produced a three-point play to trigger a 17-0 run that put Kent State up 20-8 and in control for good. Ohio crept to within six once, but KSU countered with six straight points and wound up carrying a 36-24 lead into the locker room after holding the Bobcats to 21-percent shooting from the floor.
Ohio's Stevie Taylor converted a three-point play to pull the Bobcats within eight points at the 4:46 mark, but Henniger answered by rumbling to the rim for a three-point play of his own just 25 seconds later.
"That was the play of the game," said Senderoff. "It was a sideline ball-screen, and Mark did a great job of going to the rim strong and finishing. Without that play, it might have been very different down the stretch."
The lead stayed at nine or more the rest of the way.
Travis Wilkins was the only Ohio player to score in double-figures, finishing with 14 points.
The Flashes can all but lock up a first-round MAC Tournament home game with a victory on Tuesday, when they'll host Miami on Senior Night.
Despite the up-and-down season the team has had, I was proud of their effort yesterday. I would like nothing more than to see the team hit their stride at the end of the season, to create positive momentum heading into the tournament. I also credit Coach Senderoff, and his staff, for keeping this team together, and fighting, every second of every game. Good Luck the rest of the way! My sons and I will be there Tuesday looking for an important win over Miami.