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A Run To Remember: The 2002 Kent State Golden Flashes

A look back at Kent State’s memorable run to the Elite Eight in 2002

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament-Akron vs Kent State Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Kent State Men’s basketball coach Rob Senderoff led his team on an improbable run through the MAC tournament last week, earning the Flashes a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Kent State is the 14th seed in the South Region and will travel out to Sacramento, California for a first round match-up with the 3rd seeded UCLA Bruins at the newly constructed Golden One Center. The Flashes started playing their best basketball in the second half of the MAC regular season and earned the sixth seed in the conference tournament. They hosted an extremely dangerous Central Michigan club led by the nation’s leading scorer Marcus Keene and edged out the Chippewas in overtime 116-106, to earn a trip to Quickens Loan Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, where they would be faced with the mental and physical challenge of winning three times in three days against the MAC’s elite. Senderoff and the Flashes proved to be up to the task knocking of #3 Buffalo, #2 Ohio and #1 Akron on consecutive days to win the MAC Tournament and a trip to the big dance.

This year’s NCAA tournament birth for the Flashes also marks the 15 year anniversary of Kent State Men’s Basketball’s finest moment. It was April 2001 when Stan Heath took over at Kent State as the Head basketball coach. That year also marked Coach Senderoff’s first year as a member of the Kent State basketball staff. Heath inherited a Kent State team filled with talent and experience. He would lead them to a decent start but when they dropped their first conference game on January 9th to fall to 9-5 overall and 2-1 in the MAC, no one could have predicted what would unfold over the next two and a half months.

The senior-laden Flashes club saw everything fall into place. They became incredibly efficient offensively, lead by the dominating inside presence of JUCO power forward transfer Antonio Gates and the steady perimeter scoring of guards Trevor Hoffman and Andrew Mitchell. More importantly they became an aggressive and extraordinarily effective defensive team, smothering opponent after opponent with Demetric Shaw leading the way. Kent State would run off 15 wins in a row, winning out the rest of the regular season to post a 24-5 overall record with a stunning 17-1 mark in MAC play. It didn’t stop their, in fact they were just hitting their stride as they cruised through the MAC tournament winning all three games by double digits.

Little ole’ Kent State, mostly known nationally for the shootings on May 4th, 1970 that took the lives of four students during a Vietnam rally, was the hottest team in the field of 64, riding an 18 game winning streak. As the #10 seed the Flashes beat the 7th seed and the nation’s 20th ranked team Oklahoma State in the first round 69-61. Up next, the nation’s 9th ranked team and the 2nd seeded Alabama Crimson Tide stood in their way, but the Flashes showed they meant business, beating them 71-58 in an upset heard around the country. Quickly, a wave of excitement rushed through northeast Ohio as the Flashes were in the sweet 16 and had won 20 in a row. The NCAA tournament is known for it’s Cinderella stories and massive upsets but this kind of run from a mid-major and in the fashion they did it, as if they belonged there, was scarcely seen at the time.

In the sweet sixteen Kent State would face the 8th ranked team in the country and 3rd seeded Pittsburgh. With the bookstores sold out of all their gear, students crammed into dorm rooms, bars filled to capacity, while others pilled into their living rooms to watch the Flashes make history. With a flare for the dramatic the Flashes took heavily favored Pittsburgh to overtime and outlasted them in Rupp Arena to advance the elite eight. Coach Heath and the members of the Kent State men’s basketball team had captured the hearts of fans all over the country in a tournament run that is still talked about today. The Flashes would at last lose in the South Regional final, just one win away from the Final Four, to the Big Ten’s Indiana Hoosiers 81-69.

On November 18th, 2016 the 2001-2002 Kent State team was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri and will have an exhibit on display until next November based on their postseason, as a part of the “Ten Most Memorable Runs In NCAA Tournament History.”

Coach Senderoff, who was a part of that memorable run, called on his experiences this season as Demetric Shaw, leader on the 2002 team, has spoken with this year’s team multiple times throughout the season. As the Flashes prepare for their 6th all-time birth in the NCAA tournament, Coach Senderoff knows all too well what can happen on that magical stage, “We're going into and thinking that whoever we play it's our story that we're telling," Senderoff said. "There might be another chapter in our story. That's our plan. Whoever we play they are going to get our best effort."