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AKRON -- Guts that have been missing through stretches of the Kent State men's basketball team's rollercoaster-ride 2013-14 season were in ample supply Friday night.
The Golden Flashes willed their way to a down-to-the-wire affair with arch-rival Akron in their regular-season finale despite foul troubles that further amplified a huge disparity in overall size and strength.
But pure grit couldn't overcome their inability to put the ball in the basket.
The Flashes shot 22 percent from the field and 15 percent from 3-point range in the second half, numbers they simply couldn't overcome as they fell to the Zips 58-54 before a packed house at JAR Arena.
"We competed very hard, and as a coach that's all you want out of your team. You want them to compete every night," said KSU coach Rob Senderoff, who dubbed his squad "lifeless" following a 73-61 home loss to Miami on Tuesday. "Tonight maybe some shots that normally go in didn't go in, but I'm proud of the effort. We have some work to do, but hopefully we'll face them again."
Kent State (16-15, 7-11 MAC) will officially be on the road for the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament on Monday, likely traveling to either Miami or Northern Illinois, where the Flashes have already won this year. Meanwhile, the Zips (20-11, 12-6) secured the No. 4 seed and a bye into Thursday's third round.
Kent State went scoreless for nearly four minutes down the stretch, yet still had a chance to take the lead when junior guard Devareaux Manley unleashed an open 3-pointer from the wing with 15 seconds left. The shot by KSU's top 3-point shooter looked pure all the way, but spun out.
"I would argue (Manley) is the best 3-point shooter in the league, and I thought he had a pretty good look to give us the lead," said Senderoff. "It was off a play that we run a lot, good execution ... sometimes the ball just doesn't go in."
Sophomore forward Chris Ortiz got a hand on the rebound, but couldn't secure it. Zips star forward Demetrius Treadwell then nailed two free throws with 12.3 seconds left to put his team up 58-54, effectively sealing the win.
Treadwell wound up with 14 points and six rebounds, but shot just 4-of-14 from the field. His back-to-back and-ones helped the Zips wipe out a six-point deficit and take a 44-43 lead with 8:40 to go.
When that advantage quickly reached 49-43 after a 3-point by Reggie McAdams, a spunky effort by Kent State seemed to be running out of gas.
But as they had against all odds all night long, the Flashes kept fighting.
Even though regulars Mark Henniger, Ortiz and Manley were limited to a combined 10 minutes of action in the first half due to foul trouble, Kent State took a 32-27 lead into the locker room. After that lead evaporated and Akron went up six, Henniger responded with a three-point play on a tough follow to get his team right back in the game.
With under three minutes remaining the contest was tied at 51, and momentum was basically neutral.
"It was a tie game with (three) minutes to go," said Senderoff. "When you're on the road there's not much more you can ask for."
Treadwell followed his own miss to put Akron up 53-51, then the Flashes, who had taken great care of the basketball all night long (8 turnovers), threw a pass into their own bench with two minutes to play. Nick Harney made them pay with a layup for a 55-51 Zips lead with 1:36 remaining.
After a pair of badly missed 3-pointers by Kent State, Akron had a chance to take control, but Carmelo Betancourt clanked a pair of free throws. Manley promptly shot his team back into contention with a 3-pointer from the corner, cutting the deficit to 55-54 with 28 seconds to go.
Treadwell was fouled and made just 1-of-2 from the line, setting up Manley's chance at a potential game-winning 3.
"We didn't have any more timeouts, so we have a couple of sets we run late game if we're down two," said Senderoff. "There's an option that our point guard can drive it and get to the rim, but he threw it back to (Manley), and I'd take that shot 1,000 out of 1,000 times. It just didn't go in."
Shots weren't falling in the second half for the Flashes, who went 2-of-13 from 3-point range in the final 20 minutes and hit just 3-of-19 3s overall. Still, they managed to hang around and nearly knock off the Zips thanks to a gutty effort that showed up most clearly in the rebounding column, as Kent State out-boarded a much bigger and stronger Akron squad 43-35.
The Flashes also outscored the Zips 32-26 in the paint behind sophomore forward Khaliq Spicer, who finished with 10 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
No single player symbolized Kent State's effort better than 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore guard Kellon Thomas, who led his team with 14 points and also grabbed five rebounds, while battling Akron's behemoths all night long.
On one possession in the first half, Thomas switched off guarding 6-10, 285-pound Isaiah Johnson, 6-6 Quincy Diggs and 6-7, 235-pound Treadwell, helped force a missed shot, then stuck an 18-footer on the other end. Thomas also took a charge from Treadwell for the second straight game.
Thomas and junior guards Kris Brewer and Derek Jackson combined for 19 points and three assists on 8-of-13 shooting from the floor in the first half.
"We played really hard tonight," said Thomas. "In the first half, and the beginning of the second half, we did everything we were supposed to do. We didn't make all the plays, but we made the little plays like grabbing rebounds and loose balls."
Those same three players shot 3-of-16 in the second half, and as a team KSU missed 20 of its first 24 shots from the floor in the final 20 minutes.
"I don't think we did anything different, I don't think they did anything different (in the second half)," said Senderoff. "They're a physical team, we missed some shots on top of the rim. Maybe they closed down our driving lanes a little bit. They amped up their intensity level and we struggled to score.
"But when it's all said and done you've got the best 3-point shooter in the league (open), down two on the road. They didn't lock us up on that play, we just missed an open one. And that happens."
The Flashes will now turn their attention on a potential Cinderella run through the MAC Tournament beginning with Monday's first-round road game. A win sends them to Cleveland for the second round on Wednesday.
"We've gotta try to get to Cleveland and see what happens," said Senderoff.
Facebook: Allen Moff, Record-Courier
Go Flashes! Good effort against Akron; now keep it up guys...