AKRON - Kent State played a near perfect game to defeat Akron 74-61 on Friday night in front of a national audience on ESPN2. The Flashes won their fourth MAC regular season championship in school history and third in the last five years. Kent State receives an automatic bid to the NIT with the win, if needed. KSU also clinched the #1 seed in the upcoming MAC tournament and will play the winner of the Ohio @ Ball State game on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. at The Q in Cleveland.
Senior Anthony Simpson led KSU with a career high 23 points to go with his nine rebounds. Simpson was extremely impressive displaying a smooth jump shot to go with his usual athletic finishes at the rim. The Flashes improve to 13-0 when Simpson scores in double figures. Rod Sherman chipped in with 15 points and Chris Singletary had 11.
In the first half Kent State weathered an early storm of unsure play by responding with a 14-1 run and never looked back. Kent State held Akron without a field goal for a six minute stretch and just 27-percent shooting in the first half to take a 31-23 lead into the break.
“To win a conference championship, we must win on the road. I thought we played really well throughout and Akron was not great in the first half and that was probably the difference,” said Kent State Head Coach Geno Ford. “We were able to get a comfortable lead and Akron could not get the score close enough that we could fold to its pressure.”
Kent State shot a sizzling 64-percent in the second half to put the game away. It is the ninth time in the last 14 games that Kent State has shot 50-percent or better in the second half. The Flashes led by as many as 20 points in the second half when freshman Randal Holt put in a short jumper at the 4:58 mark.
During the first six or seven minutes of the second half everything when Kent State's way. While Simpson was taking over offensively, it seemed like all the loose balls went to KSU, all the hustle plays were made by the Flashes.
The Zips did not play very well at all. Rhodes Arena was rocking before the game with 5,545 fans in white ready to propel Akron to victory. The problem was, Kent State followed a perfect script by taking a lead early and taking the crowd out of the game.
"That's probably the first time in my six years that we've gotten our ass beat that bad at home," Akron head coach Keith Dambrot said. "The score wasn't even indicative of how they beat us. They played well. We just didn't play with any discipline. We had no offensive discipline, no defensive discipline. Whatever team has won this series has taken better shots than the other team. Our shot selection was awful. We got outside of our realm. We didn't play as a team."
When Kent State can get that many contributions from their team and play like they did tonight, they will be extremely tough to beat in Cleveland at the MAC tournament.
As for Ford and his staff, they will enjoy the championship and the break.
"The perception of Kent State basketball is that we're a national program," Ford said. "We've had a team for 100 years, but we've only done this four times in our history. What we did is pretty special."
KEYS TO KENT - In our preview we said points in the paint, defend the three and rebound margin would all be keys. The Flashes passed the test. They out scored Akron 44-30 in the paint, Akron went 3/19 from three point range for 16-percent and Kent State out rebounded Akron 36-30. All that adds up to a winning formula for Kent State against Akron. Add in a 34-12 advantage in bench points (23 for Simpson), and Kent State rolls.
FLASHES EXERCISE GATES' DEMONS - Kent State assistant coach Armon Gates did not win a MAC championship his senior year. He didn't beat Akron his senior year. In fact, he went 0-3 vs. the Zips and played his final collegiate game against them in the MAC semis in 2006-2007. On Friday night, a couple of his former teammates had his back. "Coach Gates just told me, 'Congratulations,' Singletary said. "That's something we weren't able to do his senior year. Akron beat him three times. It's always big to come here and get a win."
"THE ROCK" IS BACK - Rod Sherman, nicknamed "The Rock" his freshman season by Jim Christian for his steady play, gave the Flashes a huge lift on Friday night with 15 points. Sherman is a bad matchup for Akron. He is too big, strong and athletic for Akron's smaller guards. Keith Dambrot had some praise for Sherman after the game. "Rod Sherman is the reason they win. Rod Sherman didn't play last year. You do the math. He is a winning guy. Right now, they have three guys who are First Team All-MAC."
MAC TOURNAMENT IS SET - The pairings for the MAC tournament are set. Check out the bracket. The Flashes get the prime #1 seed slot at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday against the Ball State/Ohio winner. I'm picking the Bobcats to make it to Cleveland. That's not a real fun matchup for Kent State. A couple weeks ago I quietly picked Ohio as my dark horse in the tournament...I think a lot of people did.
MORE TOURNAMENT - Let me speak out on something while I'm on the subject. Kent State plays for championships. Regular season championships and tournament championships. All year I have heard, "Who cares, the whole season comes down to three days in Cleveland." Go in Kent State's lockerroom and try telling their six seniors that a regular season championship doesn't mean much. To steal a quote from Geno Ford, "When you have a chance to put up a banner and get a ring, you put up a banner and get a ring." Kent State has separated themselves from the rest of the league. For the second time in the last three seasons, the Flashes have put themselves in position for an NCAA at large bid. The talk is real, check the resume, watch them play. They have done it with the 26th toughest non-conference schedule, going 9-5 in those games. They have seven wins over teams with 20 or more victories this season. The regular season is the grind. "The tough one to win is the regular season championship," Ford said. "The fun one is the tournament, because you get to go to the NCAAs."
OK, LAST THOUGHT ON TOURNAMENT - If Kent State is good enough and if they are the best team in the MAC (which looks pretty clear after Friday night), they'll win the MAC tournament. If the Flashes have to run the East gauntlet of Ohio, then either Miami or Buffalo then Akron again, so be it. If they are good enough, they will win. I don't want to hear about the easier road or anything like that. Is the #3 seed the easier road? Well you would think, it's been that way for a while since the West division has lagged behind. I'm a Kent State fan and I'm greedy. I want it all. I want a MAC regular season championship, I want the #1 seed and I want a MAC tournament championship. I want to beat Buffalo again to get another top 100 RPI win and hopefully get a 10 or 11 seed in the NCAA tournament. That's how I am thinking. If Kent State loses in the MAC tournament then they lose.