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Zabo's buzzer-beater saves Kent State's season, beats NIU 61-59

Defending MAC champs complete first step in title defense

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Kent State and UCLA Bruins Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

One year after 6-seeded Kent State rattled off a Cinderella run in the MAC Tournament, the Golden Flashes would try to work their magic again.

With 7.4 seconds remaining, the Golden Flashes were clinging on to a narrow one-point lead. But on an aggressive drive by Northern Illinois point guard Eugene German, Kent State did the one thing it couldn’t afford to do — foul.

German’s first free throw found the net, but his second bounced around the surface of the rim and landed in the hands of Kent State’s Adonis De La Rosa. With limited ticks remaining on the life of the clock, the team fed the ball to point guard Kevin Zabo. At 59-59, it was either win it or go to overtime, so Kent State played like there was nothing to lose. Zabo pursued the basket, fired down the left side and threw the rock at the backboard. He fell to the ground and the ball fell through the cylinder as the backboard lights flashed red. Game.

(5) Kent State pulled off a thrilling, buzzer-beating victory over (12) Northern Illinois, 61-59, in Kent on Monday night. The defending MAC champs appeared on track to coast to a comfortable victory in the first half, but the size of the fight in the dog, or husky in this situation, was too grand for this opening round game to end in blowout fashion.

Northern Illinois cashed in a pair of triples before the half to cut the Golden Flashes’ once-10-point lead to 31-25. But the second half did not mirror the first half whatsoever. Instead of a one-sided Kent State show, the contest was an intense nail-biter throughout.

No team claimed an advantage of four points or greater after the 8:25 mark of the second half. Prior to that point, Northern Illinois actually led by six but a Kent State three-pointer cut the Huskies’ lead to three. The Golden Flashes would be forced to claw back again when NIU led 56-52 with 2:27 left.

Then, Kent State point guard Jalen Avery went into takeover mode. The junior drilled a three and then drained two clutch free throws to put the 5-seeded Flashes back in front with 1:39 to go. This would be the first of four lead changes in the final 100 seconds.

Down 58-57, Kent State’s offense struck once again to go ahead 59-58 on a layup by the eventual hero Zabo. Northern Illinois missed its next field goal attempt and Kent State hauled in the rebound and went straight for blood. The Golden Flashes attempted to seal the victory by heaving a three from the corner, but it wouldn’t go. Northern Illinois collected the rebound and German initiated his drive to the basket.

Zabo would not only hit the game-winner but he led both teams in scoring. The point guard sprinkled in 19 points, including an authoritative 12 points in the first half. Kent State’s hero also dished in four assists and recorded three steals.

Zabo’s layup ensures that Kent State will be the team moving on to play (4) Ball State at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland in the second round of the MAC Tournament. The Golden Flashes are no strangers to long tournament runs. Last year’s champion squad ran through an 11-seed, 3-seed and 2-seed before downing 1-seed Akron in the tourney final. This year’s team has already checked off the first box in hopes of doing the same.

Jaylin Walker (2017 MAC Tournament MVP), Zabo and the 16-16 Golden Flashes will take the court again Thursday night, while Northern Illinois’ rough 13-19 season comes to a close.