KENT: The defining moment in Kent State’s basketball season came after a 67-65 loss at lowly Northern Illinois on Jan. 30.
The Golden Flashes were expected to struggle after losing four starters from last season, but the 2012-13 season was not expected to be a total rebuilding project.
But after the loss to the Huskies, the Flashes were 2-5 in the Mid-American Conference, had lost four in a row and were seemingly headed for the program’s worst season in the past 20 years.
“There was soul-searching after the Northern Illinois loss,” KSU coach Rob Senderoff said. “When we lost there, we stayed in the locker room there for a little bit more than normal. Randal [Holt] spoke up and took some accountability for our team. Then when we got back to Kent, we watched a film session, and occasionally Randal and I will get into it, and we got into it a little bit there.”
The Flashes responded by winning seven of their last nine conference games, including a current five-game winning streak.
The spurt helped Kent State (19-12, 9-7) earn a No. 4 seed in this week’s MAC Tournament and a bye into the quarterfinal round.
After practicing all week while the lower seeds played through the tournament’s first two rounds, Kent State will play No. 8 Buffalo at 6:30 tonight at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Buffalo defeated No. 5 Ball State 76-61 on Wednesday night.
“The credit [for the turnaround] goes to Randal and Chris [Evans] and all the guys on the roster who put the work in to turn this around,” Senderoff said. “I mean, we were 2-5 in the league and we had an incredibly young and inexperienced team. It could have gone either way, but the guys on our team refused to allow that to happen to them.”
Holt’s improving health after offseason knee surgery and the coaching staff making an adjustment to get the veteran shooting guard the ball in more catch-and-shoot situations helped as well.
“As he’s gotten healthier, Randal’s played better,” Senderoff said. “Remember, he was out for four months and didn’t practice until Nov. 1. As seniors, he and Chris Evans just decided, ‘you know what? We’re going to do everything we can do to try to win games.’ ”
That mentality rubbed off on their teammates.
“[Sophomore point guard] Kris Brewer has played better, [junior forward] Darren Goodson has played much better and it’s helped us,” Senderoff said. “It’s a team deal, that’s how this works. And I think as our team has gotten better, it’s gotten more confident in return.”
After such a rough start, it appeared improbable that the Flashes could earn the No. 4 seed behind No. 1 Akron, No. 2 Ohio and No. 3 Western Michigan.
“Getting the four seed, I’m proud of our team,” Senderoff said. “I don’t think most people would have thought that we would have gotten that going into the year with as many new people as we had here.”
Finishing strong not only gave them confidence, it earned the Flashes a spot in the quarterfinals.
“That’s huge for us because now we don’t have to play so many games in order for us to win the tournament,” Holt said. “I feel like we’re heading into the tournament playing our best ball. We’re playing great offensively and have improved much on defense. We’re also maturing as a team and coming together. That’s exactly what we need heading into the tournament, where it’s either win or go home.”
Added Goodson: “Now, we just have to focus. Everyone is 0-0 now. It’s anybody’s tournament to win.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.