Facing its largest deficit of the game with just over four minutes to play, Kent State quickly turned an 11-point deficit to Cleveland State into a managable three-point hole with three minutes left in Saturday’s game at the M.A.C. Center.
Considering the visiting Vikings entered the game with a 1-5 road mark and the Golden Flashes held a 7-1 mark at home, KSU’s late 8-0 run should have been all the momentum the host needed to finish off the rally and dispatch of road-weary Cleveland State.
But the Vikings (8-6) refused to fold. And unlike the Flashes (9-3). CSU made its free throws down the stretch to escape with a 78-70 victory.
“I didn’t see fear in their eyes down the stretch, and that’s what happens when you’re on the road and things start going bad,” said Cleveland State coach Gary Waters, whose squad went 17-for-18 at the free throw line over the final 9:38 of the game.
“I think our guys played enough tough teams on the road (to learn)…But they had to go through all that in order to get where we are today. They had to understand how to fight through these kind of things.”
The Flashes spent the evening fighting back from one deficit after another, including the Vikings 6-0 run with 13 minutes to play that gave them a 45-40 advantage. Kent State appeared to catch a big break when CSU forward Anton Grady picked up his fourth foul shortly afterwards, sending him to the bench for a lengthy stay.
It was during that time – at the 10:18 mark - that a pair of Mark Henniger free throws not only knotted the score 50-all but also gave the senior forward/center the school record for consecutive free throws made at 41. The previous record of 39 was held by Trevor Huffman during the 2000-2001 season.
But another Vikings run, this one an 8-0 spurt, put them ahead with seven-plus minutes to go and increased into an 11-point cushion with under five minutes to play before the Flashes responded with the rally that began with a Darren Goodson 3-pointer at the 4:12 mark.
Henniger then split a pair of free throws, Derek Jackson followed with a coast-to-coast steal and dunk and K.K. Simmons came off the bench to contribute two free throws to whittle the disadvantage further and make it a three-point game with 3:02 to go.
But instead of Cleveland State’s players shrinking late like thay had most of the season, Trey Lewis stepped up and nailed a dagger of a 3-pointer late in the shot clock with 2:37 left that halted the Flashes momentum for good.
Guard Bryn Forbes soon followed with a clutch pair of free throws to put the game away for good.
“That was deflating,” admitted Jackson, who was an uncharacteristic 6-for-11 at the free throw line as part of the Flashes 19-for-29 mark from the charity stripe on the night. “…I felt like people were playing off their mistakes. Stuff (like that) is gonna happen during a game. You just gotta keep playing – that’s what we normally do. But I feel like people had their head down too much tonight. We should have just kept fighting.”
Early in the first half, Cleveland State was hot from 3-point range, making four of its first five 3-point attempts to take an 18-12 lead halfway through the opening half.
As good as the play was on both ends of the court in the firat half, Flashes forward Chris Ortiz had the play of the game when he tossed a shot up at the baseline - over a triple team and the backboard – that came back down straight through the net to pull KSU to withing 20-17 with 8:27 left.
The Vikings had two separate leads of six points in the half before KSU forward Melvin Tabb hit a jumper from the elbow and made the ensuing free throw for a three-point play that pulled the host to within a point, 27-26 with 1:47 to go.
On Kent State’s next possession, Jackson made a pair of made free throws that gave the Flashes their first lead since the first few minutes of action when the game was tied 7-7.
But the lead was short lived, as Forbes made a 3-point shot that swished through the net as the halftime clock hit zero, giving the Vikings a 30-28 lead at the break.