KENT — Round three of Kent State-Buffalo women's basketball, set for Wednesday afternoon in the Mid-American Conference Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, will settle a score and send the survivor on to the semifinals.
The fourth-seeded Bulls (20-9) went wire-to-wire to win the first game on Feb. 9 in Buffalo by nine, then the No. 5 seed Golden Flashes (19-11) returned the favor last Saturday by never trailing en route to a nine-point home triumph.
The 2018 MAC tournament runner-up Bulls would seem to have the edge, coming off a 29-win season that featured two NCAA Tournament triumphs. The upstart Flashes have improved six wins over last year despite relying heavily on freshmen Asiah Dingle and Lindsey Thall, who are the team's second- and third-leading scorers, respectively.
“We'll see if this young team is capable of winning tough postseason matchups,” third-year KSU coach Todd Starkey said. “Obviously Buffalo is a really talented team, and I think they're going to play mad and come right at us, try to put a lot of pressure on us. We've just got to stay focused on us and playing good basketball.”
The Flashes are certainly on an uptick, winning four of their past five games after routing Bowling Green 86-62 in their MAC Tournament opener on Monday at the M.A.C. Center.
Freshman point guard Dingle and senior center Merissa Barber-Smith in particular have been on a tear. Dingle is averaging 16.4 points in her past five games, and Barber-Smith has grabbed 77 rebounds in the previous six games.
Buffalo senior guard Cierra Dillard has been on a season-long heater. She currently ranks second in the nation in scoring at 25.3 points per game, and also posts five rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.9 steals per outing.
“Dillard's going to score. She's a proven scorer, done it all season,” Starkey said. “For us, it's more a matter of continuing to stay focused on the game plan that we feel will work.”
Kent State has struggled offensively at times this season, but ball movement has improved of late. In the past two games, the Flashes have assisted on 28-of-51 made baskets
“We've got to knock down shots,” Starkey said. “We're getting better shots lately because our ball movement has been better. We'll also need to keep them off the offensive glass and avoid empty possessions, take care of the basketball.”
Starkey would love to see his young team hang around and put some heat on the favored Bulls down the stretch.
“There's really no pressure on us. Nobody at the beginning of the year expected us to be in this position,” Starkey said. “I think our players are playing free and easy, but we've still got to play focused. We can't be careless with that. We're going to be tested. But we're playing meaningful games down the stretch, which is all you can ask for.”