KENT: In most years, Kent State vs. the University of Akron is a battle of Mid-American Conference supremacy.
The showdown Saturday night at the M.A.C. Center carried a hint of MAC desperation.
Fans stormed the court and surrounded the Golden Flashes after they pulled off a stunning 60-57 victory over the Zips, partly in reaction to the excitement and intensity of the rivalry game.
But the mob also illustrated the importance the triumph carried, at least for KSU, as senior forward Darren Goodson banked in a miraculous 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds remaining. Kent State coach Rob Senderoff called it one of the biggest shots in the history of the series.
Although there is more than a month to go before the conference tournament begins March 10, the timing seemed crucial for both teams. Kent State (12-9, 3-5) had lost four in a row coming in and its streak of 14 consecutive 20-victory seasons in the past 15 years still looks to be in jeopardy.
“If they played somebody else they may have stayed in their rut,” UA coach Keith Dambrot said afterward. “To get out of their rut there’s no better medicine than us.”
Goodson acknowledged how much the Flashes needed to prevail.
“It’s just not another Akron-Kent State game,” Goodson said. “We’re trying to find a way to get rolling.”
UA (14-7, 6-2) thought it was rolling after a lineup change sparked three consecutive victories after a 75-61 nationally televised loss to Toledo.
The Zips had been touting their improved chemistry with Demetrius Treadwell, Nick Harney, Quincy Diggs, Jake Kretzer and Carmelo Betancourt as the starting five.
Coincidentally, those three victories came after most of the UA team watched former center Zeke Marshall play a D-League game for the Maine Red Claws at the Canton Memorial Civic Center on Jan. 20. Afterward, when asked what was wrong with the Zips, Marshall said they had gotten away from playing the kind of aggressive defense that was their trademark under Dambrot.
No one can argue the improvement in the UA defense, especially when a smothering full-court press forced two KSU turnovers in the final 50 seconds.
“If you hold somebody to 60 points in their building, you should win that game,” Dambrot said. “We’ve made good progress, we have to continue to take baths and clean ourselves up. We’re not that good yet. Our goal is to be good when it matters. We’re better than we were two or three weeks ago.”
Where the Zips and Golden Flashes will end up is anyone’s guess.
The outcome left Akron, Ohio and Buffalo tied atop the MAC East with 6-2 league records. The Zips have two games remaining against Buffalo.
“They’ve played the hardest schedule to this point, they’re going to win a lot of games,” Dambrot said of KSU. “They’re one of the top five teams in this league.
“I don’t know what you expected, I thought it was going to be a close game. Just because they’re (3-5), that didn’t surprise me in the least. In their building, 6,000 people here, they’ve got good talent and they got a couple good performances.”
Junior guard Kris Brewer said the Flashes hit the reset button in a team meeting after a one-point loss to Northern Illinois on Wednesday, another example of their maddening inability to close out games.
“This is the spark,” Brewer said. “In that little meeting we had we said this going be the start of a new season, Feb. 1. We’re 1-0 right now, we’re just going to feed off that.”
Senderoff said the Flashes went so far as to take a new team picture that they hung in the locker room. But he’s not sure beating UA will be the turning point.
“It depends how we respond moving forward. While we lost to Toledo, I thought the way we played in that game was the turning point,” Senderoff said, referring to an 81-78 loss a week ago. “I thought, ‘OK, we’re ready to turn the corner,’ then we played the worst game in the three years I’ve coached here on Wednesday at home.”
Dambrot was not ready to concede anything, especially in the MAC Tournament, and he might prove wise. With at least 22 victories in the previous eight seasons and three NCAA Tournament appearances in the past five years, Dambrot knows of what he speaks.
“I’m not disappointed, just for the record,” Dambrot said. “I know what I have in our team. I think we can be a very good team, but we’re going to have some ups and downs. It’s one more episode of us getting punched in the mouth. The more times you get punched in the mouth and you rally yourself, the better chance you have to win in March.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.