There’s a fine line between trying to do too much and taking over right when the team needs it.
It’s took a little while, but Kent State’s Chris Evans found the perfect balance Thursday in contributing early and then dominating late to lead the Flashes to a 70-68 victory over Buffalo in the Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinal game at Quicken Loans Arena.
The No. 4-seed Flashes advance to face No. 1 seed Akron tonight at 6:30 p.m. in the tournament semifinals.
Neither team led by more than eight points in the tightly-contested game that came to down to Evans putting the No. 4-seed Flashes on his back in the final minutes as the lead see-sawed back and forth and was tied several times.
With the Flashes holding a slight 62-61 advantage, Evans split the Bulls defense on back-to-back baskets. The first came on a driving step-back jumper, followed by a gorgeous finger roll lay-in that would have made George “the Iceman” Gervin proud, pushing KSU’s lead to five points.
“The best thing that (Evans) did - obviously aside from the scoring - was late when they collapsed on him instead of taking the shot like he might have two months ago, he kicked it to Dev (Manley) to make the play,” KSU coach Rob Senderoff said. “(Evans) didn’t feel the need to have to do it himself. To me as important as the baskets he made was him not trying to force something up.”
When Buffalo junior guard Auraum Nuiriankh sunk a clutch 3-pointer with 54.5 seconds left to make it a one-possession game once again, KSU sophomore guard Manley calmly stepped up and made two free throws with 21 seconds left. Evans followed suit with 5.6 to go to seal the win.
“Evans has the size of a post and the quickness (of a guard),” Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “He’s really improved his ball handling and his shot. He’s playing the three and has 15 rebounds.”
Finishing with his eighth consecutive double-double via a game-high 25 points and the career-high 15 rebounds (the most boards by a KSU player in MAC Tournament history), Evans was an easy selection for Player of the Game honors.
“In the first half, coach Sendy told me I was settling for jumpers too early in the shot clock,” Evans said. “So in the second half, I definitely had the mindset to attack the rim. I was able to get into the lane, finish and create plays for others as well.”
Eighth-seeded Buffalo (14-20), which knocked off No. 9 Central Michigan in the first round and upset No. 5 Ball State in the second, gave the Flashes all they could handle.
Senior guard Tony Watson seemed to answer every KSU rally with a clutch 3-pointer (four in all) to finish with a team-high 23 points and 11 rebounds.
But the Flashes were successful in holding junior forward Javon McCrea to 20 points by making him settle for outside jumpers and keeping him off the glass with just four rebounds to his credit.
“Beating a team three times on one season is never an easy thing,” said Flashes senior guard and Cleveland native Randal Holt, who had 17 points. “They know you’re plays, you know their plays. You know their scouting report and they scout you. So, it really just comes down to who’s going to execute better down the stretch and who’s going to play harder to come up with the loose balls and get defensive stops when you need ‘em.”
With KSU victory, the Flashes reached 20 wins in a season for the 14thtime in the last 15 seasons – something that seemed that sounded like a pipe dream after KSU started league play with a 2-5 mark before turning things around.
In the first half, Buffalo started slow, going 1-for-10 from the field while a Kent State 12-2 run gave the Flashes a 13-5 lead. But McCrea kept the Bulls from falling too far behind, scoring 10 of Buffalo’s first 17 points.
Ironically, it was with McCrea sitting on the bench with two fouls that Buffalo went on to take a slight halftime lead, thanks to three consecutive 3-pointers - including back-to-back long range shots from Watson.
But the Flashes made up ground at line in the final two minutes of the half with Holt making 5-of-6 free throws to pull KSU to within two points, 32-30, at halftime.
“In the first half we showed a ton of jitters and really didn’t play the way we’ve played since February,” Senderoff said. “It reminded me of how we played in early January when we weren’t playing real well.”