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Thanks to defense, depth and another dominant effort by Jimmy Hall, the Kent State men's basketball lived to fight another day.
The star senior forward hit 12-of-14 free throws on his way to a game-high 24 points, and grabbed eight rebounds to carry the No. 6 seed Golden Flashes past two-time defending champion Buffalo 68-65 in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament Thursday night in Cleveland.
Hall's final two free throws with 12.9 seconds left put the Flashes (20-13) up three.
"I just tried to envision myself in my playground back in Brooklyn," said Hall. "Just be a senior and hit the shot."
Hall scored 19 points in the second half, when he hit 9-of-10 free throws, and made five of his team's six field goals in the final 20 minutes.
Then their defense took over, taking away any decent looks at a potential game-tying 3 by the Bulls (17-15) in the closing seconds. A desperation heave at the buzzer by C.J. Massinburg was not close, and Kent State was able to celebrate its first win in Cleveland and first trip to the MAC Tournament semifinals since 2013.
"Tremendous game. We had a lot of things go against us, but I couldn't be more proud of how hard our guys fought," said KSU coach Rob Senderoff. "It's March, and you're always glad to be playing another game at this time of year. It was a total team effort tonight. I think the team over the course of the year has really grown, and we've been able to overcome some adversity."
The Flashes, who have won seven of their last eight games, will meet No. 2 seed Ohio (20-10) in Cleveland tonight at 8 p.m.
Senior wing Deon Edwin notched a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, while sophomore guard Jaylin Walker added 12 points. But both players were on the bench during the stretch run after fouling out.
Senior Blake Hamilton, Buffalo's leading scorer, was also among the many foul casualties as the two teams combined for 56 personals. Hamilton still led the Bulls with 17 points despite playing just 27 minutes.
Five players fouled out, as the teams combined to shoot 46 free throws in the second half alone.
"Absolutely it was, yes," said Senderoff, when asked if the game was one of the most physical ones he's ever coached. "We are both very physical teams. It was a tough game to officiate. I thought (the officials) did a great job, and I thought our guys and their guys tried to play through it as best you can."
Kent State raced ahead in the first half, took a 39-32 lead into the intermission, and maintained control until things got terribly hectic in the final three minutes.
A Hall layup gave the Flashes a 65-58 lead with 3:01 left, but moments later Walker was whistled for his fifth foul then given a technical after reacting to the call. Two free throws each by Massinburg (15 points, 12 rebounds) and Willie Conner brought the Bulls within three at the 2:38 mark.
Kent State held Buffalo without a field goal for the rest of the final 3:55. Sophomore center Adonis De La Rosa, who took four charges in the game, hit just 1-of-6 free throws in the final two minutes but his one make helped the Flashes hang on.
Kent State won the game at the line, hitting 29-of-41 attempts from the stripe compared to a 24-of-34 effort by Buffalo. Both teams struggled immensely from the floor. The Flashes won despite hitting 6-of-25 field goals in the second half, while the Bulls were just 8-of-26. Both teams shot 35 percent from the field for the game.
Buffalo opened up a 16-12 lead, but Kent State quickly tied it on an Edwin layup and two Walker free throws. Hall was whistled for his second personal with 9:25 to go, but Walker immediately picked up the slack by draining a jumper and a 3-pointer to give himself 11 points and put the Flashes on top 21-19.
Fouls continued to build up for both teams. Hamilton picked up his second foul with 7:45 to play in the first half when De La Rosa took his third charge of the game, increasing his team-high total to 22 on the season.
Kent State continued to cruise with Hall on the bench, scoring six straight points to take a 29-23 lead on an Edwin layup following a steal by freshman forward Danny Pippen. The Flashes led 32-27 when Hall returned, having outscored the Bulls 16-11 with their star on the bench.
Junior guard Des Ridenour, a 20-percent 3-point shooter on the season who had not hit a 3 since the first matchup with Buffalo in mid-January, buried his second bomb in as many attempts in the first half to put Kent State up 35-27.
The lead reached 10 after freshman guard Mitch Peterson drew Hamilton's third foul and hit two free throws with 11 seconds left, but Buffalo's Dontay Caruthers hit a 3 in the closing seconds to cut Kent State's halftime lead to 39-32.
After playing just 11 minutes in the first half, a well-rested Hall went to work in half No. 2. He followed his own miss for a bucket, the hit a 10-footer to increase Kent State's lead to 47-34 minutes into the second half.
Hamilton picked up his fourth foul and put KSU in the bonus with 12:37 still to go. Hall scored twice more on putbacks to give the Flashes a 57-46 advantage, and they kept the cushion at five or more until things got hairy in the final three minutes.
"It just took a lot of heart, a lot of grit," said Hall. "Buffalo definitely is a tough team. They weren't going to just lay down. But we tried to stay together as much as we could and just weather the storm. We're just happy we got a win."
Kent State reached 20 wins for the 16th time in the past 19 seasons.