KENT: Niagara featured standout guard Antoine Mason, whose game-high 31 points matched his nation-leading 31.3 scoring average Saturday night in subregional play of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic hosted at the M.A.C. Center.
But Kent State had the aid of a handful of players who as a group, stepped up to prove the point that a well-rounded team will often top a squad with just one go-to man via a 102-97 victory.
After KSU’s top defender - junior guard Derek Jackson - held Mason to seven points on 2-for-4 shooting in the first half, the Purple Eagles junior turned up his intensity and poured in 24 points in a dominating second half.
“He’s strong as an ox,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said. “When he drives, it’s hard not to foul him. So, he was able to get to the rim and do some good things, especially in the second half.”
Albeit entertaining, Mason’s one-man show still wasn’t enough to the combined effort of five Kent State players finishing in double figures. With a handful of players stepping up at different times, the Golden Flashes (6-1) outlasted the Purple Eagles (1-4) to win its third game in as many days in the tournament, while eclipsing 100 points in a game for the first time since Nov. 10, 2006 against South Dakota.
“Everybody on our team can score and do different things, that’s what makes us so dangerous,” said sophomore guard K.K. Simmons, who scored 18 points in just 15 minutes off the bench.
Senior center Mark Henniger led KSU with a career-high 20 points, junior point guard Kris Brewer chipped in 16 points, Dev Manley finished with 14 points that included three 3-pointers and senior forward Darren Goodson added 10 points and a career-high tying six assists.
After Kent State got sloppy and squandered an 11-point lead late in the first half, Niagara trailed just 44-43 at halftime and then carried the momentum into the second half by opening it on a 17-12 run. The offensive spurt right out of the gate gave the Purple Eagles a 60-56 advanatge just five minutes into the action, with Mason accounting for nine of the 17.
But the Flashes re-took the lead on sophomore forward Khaliq Spicer’s thunderous two-handed dunk from Simmons that pulled KSU to within one of Niagara, 59-58 with 14:30 to play.
Just when his teammates began to struggle offensively, Simmons took over during a key mid-second half stretch that began with a 3-pointer in transition that gave KSU a 63-61 lead with 12:40 to go. The 6-foot-4, 190-pounder who sat out out last season under NCAA transfer rules from UNC Wilmington, also added an old-fashioned three-point play as he scored eight consecutive points and 10-of-13 to increase KSU’s lead to 71-63.
“Tonight, K.K. was aggressive, but under control,” Senderoff said. “Sometimes, he tries to force things a little too much and sometimes he doesn’t get a ton of opportunity because I do sub these guys a lot. Tonight, he stiull didn’t play a ton of minutes but was still ulta productive. He’s a good 3-point shooter and once he saw his first 3-point shot go in, he started to feel it a little bit.”
With the Flashes feeding off Simmons’ energy, their trademark team hustle began to show and back-to-back baskets by Henniger gave KSU a 12-point lead at 77-65 at the 10:03 mark.
But Mason once again sparked a Niagara rally that made it a close game again in the final three minutes, forcing the Flashes to ultimately have to seal the victory at the line. Sophomore guard Kellon Thomas had just six points for the host, but they were as clutch as any on the night, as he went 6-for-6 now from the foul line in closing seconds to secure the win.
“Kellon made those free throws, and I tell you, he’s cold blooded,” Senderoff said.
In the first half, Manley picked up right where he left off the previous night when he sunck seven 3-pointers in KSU’s victory over USC Upstate, sparking the Flashes with nine quick points in just the first seven and a half minutes of play as Kent State took a 20-11 lead.
But Mason, who was held without a field goal attempt the first nine minutes of the game, made his first basket with 4:51 to go in the half to cuts KSU’s lead to 34-30. But after the Flashes had a nine-point lead with 2:35 to go, Mason helped Niagara go on a 10-2 run to close gap to one point by halftime.
“I challenge anyone right now who would have thought we’d be 6-1 at this point,” Senderoff said. “So I’m happy where we’re at right now.”
TheFlashes return to action Wednesday when they play host to Youngstown State at 7 p.m.