SACRAMENTO, Cal. — While the 'Big Dance' only lasted one night this time around, the 2016-17 Kent State men's basketball team proved it belonged on college basketball's main stage.
Senior forward Jimmy Hall and sophomore forward Jaylin Walker led a valiant effort by the 14th-seeded Golden Flashes (22-14), who cut a 17-point first-half deficit to four in the second half before wearing down and falling 97-80 to No. 3 seed UCLA (30-4) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday night at the Golden 1 Center.
Hall finished one of the most prolific careers in Kent State history by producing his eighth double-double in his last nine games and 23rd of the season with 20 points and 15 rebounds. He shot 9-of-18 from the field, grabbed five offensive boards and committed just one turnover in 31 minutes before fouling out with 2:10 to play.
“It was a fantastic journey. It didn't work out the way we wanted it to, but it was a great ride,” said Hall. “I appreciate the coaches, my teammates and just everybody. It's been a fantastic ride.”
Walker, coming off a career-high 30-point effort in the Flashes' Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship Game victory over rival Akron last Saturday, poured in a game-high 23 points and grabbed six boards. Walker shot 9-of-23 from the field and hit 5-of-13 3-pointers.
“I look at Jaylin and how he's progressed during the season. Jaylin is going to be the next guy for us,” said KSU coach Rob Senderoff, when asked about replacing Hall next year. “We're going to have a lot of guys, but he's going to become the face of our program. There is some pressure involved in that, but if there is anybody that can handle that it's Jaylin Walker.”
Senior wing Deon Edwin also made his final game at KSU a memorable one by scoring 18 points, while junior guard Kevin Zabo added 12 points (2-of-2 3-pointers) and five assists off the bench. The rest of the team managed just seven points.
After starting the game down 20-5, Kent State fought back to within four points early in the first half and trailed by just eight with under eight minutes to go.
“Very proud of our group. We had our chances,” said Senderoff, who made his NCAA tourney debut as a head coach. “We didn't start off the game very well, but battled back. We started the second half off well, but ultimately we didn't get enough stops and they're a very good team. They didn't miss. I thought for the most part we guarded pretty well.
“They're a good team, tremendous offensive team. But I couldn't be more proud of our guys in terms of how hard we fought throughout the entire game and for the season that we had this year.”
Kent State fell behind 16-2 out of the gate and trailed by as many as 17 in the first half, but a Walker 3 brought the Flashes within 54-50 at the 16:20 mark. UCLA answered with five straight points to regain control.
Kent State was still within striking distance at the 7:39 mark, trailing just 74-66 after a Zabo basket. But the Bruins, who lead the nation in scoring at over 90 points per game, made 11 straight shots from the field to pull away. A second 16-2 run gave UCLA a comfortable 90-68 cushion with just under four minutes remaining.
Kent State simply ran out of gas, going nearly three minutes without a field goal following Zabo's hoop.
The Flashes, making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008, earned their first-ever NCAA tourney triumph in California back in 2001 — a victory over Indiana in San Diego. Fifteen years ago Kent State stunned the nation by advancing to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed.
Their return trip to the 'Big Dance' appeared to be over just minutes after it started.
Kent State missed 10 of its first 11 shots and fell behind 16-2 out of the gate. The lone bucket came on a putback by Hall nearly four minutes into the game.
The Flashes eventually found their footing offensively behind Hall and Walker, who scored 17 of their team's first 19 points. But after Kent State cut the gap to single digits, UCLA pushed it right back to 17 at 43-26 following a basket by sophomore guard Aaron Holiday.
With the game seemingly slipping away, the Flashes suddenly rallied. Zabo hit a 3 and Edwin scored six points in the final three minutes, including a steal and breakaway dunk to close a 13-4 run that brought Kent State within 47-39 at the half.
“We're a good second-half team,” said Senderoff. “We've been down at halftime of a lot of games, so I thought cutting it to single digits at halftime was important. Then we had a great start to the second half.”
Hall opened the second half with a reverse layup, but UCLA pushed the lead right back to 11. The Flashes responded with a 9-2 run capped by Walker's 3 that cut the deficit to 54-50.
“Kent State puts a lot of pressure on you. I thought they did a lot of good things. It was a battle,” said Bruins coach Steve Alford. “If you look across the country, these games are just battles. They are hard. I thought our guys really battled. I congratulate them. They had an outstanding season, and they were a great challenge tonight. I thought our guys did a great job of meeting that challenge.”
After senior guard Isaac Hamilton (14 points, 6 rebounds) hit a 3, Edwin responded with a bomb of his own to bring Kent State within 59-53.
Shortly after Hall picked up his fourth foul with eight minutes remaining, Zabo's bucket brought the Flashes within eight at 74-66. Holiday responded with a three-point play, and this time UCLA ripped off a run that Kent State could not answer.
The Bruins went 11:39 in the second half without missing a shot, hitting 11-of-11 from the 12:16 mark until Holiday’s missed layup with 1:37 remaining. They shot 17-of-26 from the field in the second half (65 percent) and 63 percent for the game.
“It seemed like there were a lot of contested shots that they were making, and as the game wore on some of them became less and less contested,” said Senderoff. “I thought we played as hard as we could play. As a coach, that's really all you can ask for. I couldn't be prouder of the effort. We started out (down) 20-5, but with 16 minutes to go in the game it's a four-point game. In the tournament there are a lot of games that turn out to be 30-point (losses) when it starts out that way.”
Freshman forward TJ Leaf led the Bruins with 23 points, while star freshman guard Lonzo Ball added 15 points and three assists. But the player who did the most damage was Holiday, who scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field and dished out 11 assists.
UCLA, which leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, finished with 25 assists compared to six turnovers. The Flashes committed just eight turnovers, and the nation's second-leading offensive rebounding team reached its average with 15 against the a much taller Bruins squad.
“Outside of the result, what you saw in terms of how hard we played is what our program is about,” said Senderoff.
The Bruins will face No. 6 seed Cincinnati (30-5) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday in Sacramento.