The center position was one of the main areas of concern for Kent State entering the season.
Senior center Mark Henniger was given the nod the start the season in the post, but there was no guarantee the former Jackson High School standout would remain there without showing steady improvement and increasing production.
After spending a majority of the off season in the gym and in the weight room working on his game and adding 10 pounds of muscle, Henniger’s hard work has paid off especially in the Flashes last two games in which he’s posted career highs in points.
After scoring 13 points to lead the way in Saturday’s win over Saint Peter’s, Henniger upped the ante with a career-best 17 points along with a team-high tying eight rebounds and two blocks to lead host Kent State to a 72-59 victory over Western Carolina Thursday in sub regional play of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
“The weight room has a big thing to do with it,” Henniger said of his improvement on the boards. “As does the fact that coach (Rob Senderoff) has been working more on rebounding in practice, we’ve been doing more rebounding drills. Scoring wise, that’s one thing I wanted to work on, I wanted to score more, to contribute more offense to the team. Now, my teammates are giving me good looks, finding me more.”
With noticeable improvement in both areas, Henniger’s play Thursday – which also included going 9-for-9 at the free-throw line and taking a second-half steal coast-to-coast for a lay up that gave KSU (4-1) a 54-40 lead - inspired the student section at the M.A.C. Center to chant “MVP! MVP!” during his last trip to the foul line.
“The bench was (chanting MVP), too,” said sophomore forward Khaliq Spicer, who chipped in five points and was one of four KSU players to grab eight rebounds in a productive 12 minutes off the bench.
A little later, the raucous group showered Henniger with a standing ovation when he left the floor for the final time with six minutes to go and the Flashes in charge with a 16-point advantage.
While it’s not that often a 6-foot-9, 230-pound big man takes a steal and streaks all the way to the other end of the court for a lay up, Henniger said he just harkened back to his early days on the hardwood.
“I used to be a guard back in the day in seventh grade,” he said with a chuckle. “Then I grew five inches one summer. So I was used to playing that way back in the day.”
Henniger only had four points at halftime, as he and the rest of the Flashes started off slow and out of sync offensively, allowing the Catamounts (3-3) to build a six-point lead at 18-13 with just under eight minutes to by riding a 9-2 run.
Kent State was able to hold the game close early despite its offensive struggles by keeping up its defensive pressure before a series of hustle plays by junior guard Dev Manley sparked the offense with a hard blocking foul under the Catamounts basket, then made back-to-back baskets on the other end of the floor as the Flashes went on a 14-4 run to re-take the lead and a 27-22 advantage at halftime.
“Dev dove on the floor on the tip (off),” Senderoff said. “He dove on the floor after balls three times in the first half. His energy and adding a career-high eight rebounds while playing against a big wing, I thought he was great for us.”
It wasn’t a pretty first half of play, as Kent State was 0-for-8 from 3-point range, had zero second-chance points on seven offensive rebounds and didn’t fully take advantage of six trips to the foul line in shooting just 11-of-15 from the line.
“In the first half we did a phenomenal job defensively, but just couldn’t get a shot to fall,” Senderoff said.
But after the break, Kent State began to find its grove by feeding Henniger in the post and getting a few baskets in transition as the offense began to flow. Junior point guard Kris Brewer also finished in double-figure scoring with 12 points and three assists and sophomore guard K.K. Simmons added a career-high 10 points and three assists with the aid of 8-for-8 shooting from the foul line.
The Flashes unsung hero of the night was junior guard Derek Jackson, who not only contributed nine points, four rebounds and three steals, but as KSU’s top defender, also shut down Western Carolina’s (3-3) top scorer Trey Sumler by limiting the senior guard to four points in 29 minutes.
“Derek did such a great job defensively on Sumler, who is the pre-season Player of the Year candidate (in the All-Southern Conference),” Senderoff said. “(Sumler) averaged 18 points a game last year. But tonight, every second that Derek was in the game, he was guarding (Sumler).”
In the first game Thursday, USC Upstate defeated Niagara 83-74.
Friday during the second day of action of the three-day event, Western Carolina and Niagara tip off at 5 p.m., followed by Kent State hosting USC Upstate 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first game.