KENT — Kent State's opportunity to take down the 14th-ranked team in the country was stolen right before the eyes of a massive crowd at the M.A.C. Center.
Steals on three consecutive possessions in the closing minutes were turned into six points that gave No. 14 Buffalo the cushion it needed to secure an 88-79 victory over the Golden Flashes in front of 5,133 well-entertained fans and a national television audience Friday night.
Seven swipes by the Bulls (18-2, 6-1 Mid-American Conference) led to 22 fastbreak points that keyed lethal runs at the beginning and end of the second half that squelched a spirited effort by the Flashes (15-5, 4-3), who led by 13 early on.
“Great game. We were right there. They made some toughness plays in the last few minutes. That's the game,” KSU coach Rob Senderoff said. “They're at their best in transition, and they scored a lot of fastbreak points off live-ball turnovers. You can't win against a team that's as explosive as them with live-ball turnovers.”
Kent State star senior guard Jaylin Walker scored a game-high 21 points, and hit several jaw-dropping shots in the first half, but was stripped twice down the stretch by Bulls senior guard CJ Massinburg. Walker was held to six points on 1-of-7 shooting from the floor with three turnovers in the second half.
Bulls coach Nate Oats and his players claimed they wore Walker down by throwing three different defenders at him in the second half. Walker played all 40 minutes, and also finished with eight rebounds and three steals.
The Flashes were down a key member of the rotation in junior guard Mitch Peterson (Walsh Jesuit), who suffered an ankle injury at the end of Thursday's practice and was not able to play.
Junior forward Philip Whittington doubled up for Kent State with 18 points and 13 rebounds, and senior point guard Jalen Avery added 13 points but did not have an assist in 38 minutes. The Flashes finished the contest with just eight assists.
Massinburg and senior forward Nick Perkins scored 20 points each to pace the Bulls, who bounced back from a last-second loss at Northern Illinois on Tuesday by snapping KSU’s three-game winning streak.
Buffalo was pushed to the hilt for 37 minutes, and Kent State seemed to be in prime position to knock off the Bulls, trailing by three with the ball at the three-minute mark. Then, in the blink of an eye, a budding upset was thwarted by Buffalo's ability to steal the basketball.
Flashes junior guard CJ Williamson lost the ball to Bulls senior guard Jeremy Harris, who dunked to put his team up 80-75. Then Massinburg took the ball from a dribbling Walker on back-to-back possessions, leading to baskets by Harris and Massinburg that pushed the lead to 84-75 with 2:18 to play.
Walker was the center of attention for multiple Bulls defenders in the final minutes.
“[With] like seven minutes left they started picking me up full court, denying me every entry,” said Walker. “It was tough.”
A 3 by Avery cut Kent State's deficit to 84-79, and the Flashes regained possession, but Williamson was called for a moving pick with just under a minute left. Buffalo then knocked down four free throws in the final minute to seal it.