CLEVELAND: After Kent State’s four-point road victory over the University of Akron a week ago, there was almost a sense that it was a fluke.
The Zips were reeling after junior point guard Alex Abreu’s arrest on felony drug charges the day before.
The headlines, the television highlights, the importance of the outcome was all about the shell-shocked Zips, whom some thought could be a Cinderella team in the NCAA Tournament.
Kent State’s triumph was almost an afterthought.
KSU can right that perceived slight tonight in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena. The fourth-seeded Golden Flashes (20-12) earned the right to face top-seeded UA with a nail-biting 70-68 victory over Buffalo on Thursday.
Abreu remains indefinitely suspended, but UA coach Keith Dambrot will have had a week to plan for life without him.
KSU is now the hottest remaining team in the MAC Tournament after winning six consecutive games and eight of its last nine. It can legitimize what it did seven days ago with a victory over the Zips.
“We still feel like there’s unfinished business for us and that’s how we’re going to approach tomorrow,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said.
His players had no problem thinking ahead after dispatching the Bulls.
“No disrespect to Akron, but when you suit up you’re supposed to be ready,” KSU senior forward Chris Evans said. “If we would have lost, I don’t think we would have made any excuse, we would have accepted it for what it was.
“We’re definitely happy we won, but that’s not the highlight of our season. We want to beat them again tomorrow when it really counts.”
Kent State senior guard Randal Holt said the Golden Flashes won’t have to manufacture feelings of disrespect before taking on the Zips. Those feelings are always there.
“We play every night with a chip on our shoulder, to earn respect that we think we deserve,” Holt said. “Every guy on our team has got that confident swagger. It helps our team.”
As much as he would personally like to beat UA, Holt won’t let that chip become a burden.
“We try not to focus our energy on that,” he said. “Our energy is towards advancing in this tournament. We’re just worried about ourselves. It would be great to send Akron home. Especially for me, they’ve sent me home out of this tournament for the past two years. It would be a great feeling to get this win tomorrow.”
Holt knows KSU played one of its best games of the season in a 71-67 home loss to UA on Jan. 19. But that started a string of four consecutive losses for the Golden Flashes, hitting rock bottom with a two-point defeat at Northern Illinois on Jan. 30.
Senderoff and the Golden Flashes believe they are different now. Holt described them as a team that “plays hard defense, executes down the stretch and gets stops and gets big rebounds.”
“In February we started playing better and having more faith in each other,” Senderoff said.
Much of that is due to Holt, a Glenville High School graduate who is KSU’s lone four-year player. He has started 90 games, 89 in the past three years. Chris Evans is the star, a first-team all-MAC player who turned in a masterful 25-point, 15-rebound performance against Buffalo, but Holt is their leader.
Senderoff said as the Golden Flashes were leaving the court trailing Buffalo by two at halftime, Holt grabbed junior forward Darren Goodson and chastised him for his poor passing. Senderoff said the same thing minutes later. As Holt waited to enter the game with about 12½ minutes left, he was directing his teammates as he knelt at the midcourt line.
Evans puts the flash in the Golden Flashes athletically, but Holt does it sartorially. Two years ago he sported brilliant yellow sneakers. Thursday his Nikes were more befitting The Green Hornet.
Asked where Holt got them, Senderoff said, “I have no idea. If that’s what makes you happy … ”
But the Golden Flashes are more than Holt’s fancy shoes and Evans’ eye-popping highlight plays. As Evans pointed out, they are “building momentum game after game.”
They have developed a resolve and toughness that cannot be overlooked. Should KSU defeat UA again tonight, there will be no asterisks allowed.
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.