After all the drama that members of Kent State's men's basketball program endured on and off the M.A.C. Center floor on Senior Night Friday, they deserve a break.
They earned that rest, in the form of a first-round Mid-American Conference Tournament bye, by emerging from a 40-minute war with rival Akron, clutching a 68-65 triumph that gives the Golden Flashes the fourth seed and a break until Thursday's quarterfinal tournament clash in Cleveland.
Clinging to a one-point lead in the closing seconds, junior guard Antonio Williams emerged from a free-for-all battle for a loose ball and raced across the court before drawing a foul with 1.6 seconds left. Williams hit both free throws, giving him 13 points in the second half, and a Zips heave at the buzzer missed the mark as a KSU celebration erupted.
“Unbelievable game, unbelievable win,” KSU coach Rob Senderoff said. “The way we won this game just showed tremendous heart and toughness. We made a couple more plays down the stretch, some big plays that you need to make. I couldn't be prouder of the guys.”
Kent State (22-9, 11-7) will play the winner of Monday's matchup between No. 12 seed Western Michigan (8-23, 2-16) and No. 5 seed Central Michigan (21-10 10-8) at Quicken Loans Arena. Thursday's quarterfinal will tip off about 2:30 p.m.
Junior forward Philip Whittington scored a career-high 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the floor to lead the Flashes. He also grabbed six rebounds and finished with a plus/minus of positive 21 in 26 minutes of action.
Williams stuffed the stat sheet with 18 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three steals while playing all 40 minutes. Senior point guard Jalen Avery also scored 18 points and drained four 3-pointers in his last game at the M.A.C. Center.
Kent State finished the regular season with 22 wins, the most since 2009-10, and improved to 10-1 in games decided by five points or less this season after avenging an ugly 19-point loss at Akron last month
The Flashes also improved to 5-1 without star shooting guard Jaylin Walker, the second-leading scorer in program history, who took part in Senior Night festivities before the game but did not dress for the contest along with freshman guard DeAndre Gholston.
“I made that decision to not play [Walker] tonight. That's really all I want to talk about with that,” said Senderoff, who added that Walker's status for the MAC Tournament would be determined next week.
CBS Sports Network, which broadcast the game live, reported that Walker had been suspended indefinitely because of a violation of team rules. Walker also missed the first five games while serving a similar suspension.
Daniel Utomi drained 6-of-11 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 22 points for the Zips (16-15, 8-10), who were seeded eighth in the MAC Tournament and will host No. 9 seed Miami (15-16, 7-11) on Monday.