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Kent State slides past Ball State, 76-73, to advance to semifinal

The defending MAC champs are two wins away from a second-straight conference title

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

Clinging onto a 72-71 lead and possession, the Kent State Golden Flashes point guard Kevin Zabo journeyed to the basket and fired a layup at the glass, in hopes of building a three-point cushion. Less than 72 hours prior, Zabo’s lay-in at the buzzer lifted the Golden Flashes past Northern Illinois in Kent, sending the defending MAC champs to the quarterfinals in Cleveland.

But this time, there wouldn’t be such luck. Zabo didn’t apply enough sauce on the layup and it wedged between the rim and backboard. Then, his teammate flew in and swatted the descending ball out to a waiting Jalen Avery seated at the top of the arc. Avery waited out the shot clock and finished with an easy, second-chance layup with 24 seconds remaining to provide Kent State enhanced breathing room and a three-point lead.

Ball State’s failure to capitalize from three on the ensuing possession resulted in Kent State claiming a 76-73 victory in the MAC Tournament quarterfinals in Cleveland. Despite registering for the tournament at the sub-.500 mark, the 5-seeded Golden Flashes have shown plenty of poise in crunch time situations this tournament, emerging on top from two games in which they trailed in the final 2:30.

The 12-seeded Ball State Cardinals briefly captured a 69-67 lead in the waning minutes as a result of a Zach Gunn’s fifth three-pointer of the afternoon. Other than that instant, Kent State controlled the majority of the contest at Quicken Loans Arena, climaxing at a 10-point lead with 8:55 to go. A quartet of starters (Adonis De La Rosa, Jaylin Walker, Jalen Avery, Kevin Zabo) responsible for the victory combined for 68 of the team’s 76 points — with each contributor dishing in at least 16.

Avery and Walker served as the sharpshooters. Avery connected on all three of his attempts from beyond the arc, while the reigning MAC Tournament MVP Walker nailed 4-of-10 triples. The hero from the NIU win, Kevin Zabo, pitched in a formidable stat line of 16 points, seven rebounds, and six assists, while Adonis De La Rosa was responsible for executing the dirty work in the paint.

The 7-foot junior center didn’t shy away from contact, hauling in 10 rebounds, blocking two shots, and drawing countless trips to the free throw line. The 79-percent shooter capitalized on these opportunities at unguarded shots too, sinking 13-of-16 free throws.

Free throws were a significant determinant in the outcome in Cleveland, as Kent State’s mini 5-0 run after the Gunn three was generated solely from the foul line. Zabo and De La Rosa combined for five successful free throws in a 40-second span, erasing the 2-point deficit and rewriting it into a 72-69 lead.

Kent State earned 28 free throws throughout the game, as the Golden Flashes’ smaller, three-guard lineup consistently penetrated the paint and the Cardinal defense often resorted to fouling or yielding easy layups.

Kent State’s victory pushes the Golden Flashes to a 17-16 record, finally rising above .500 for the first time since February 3. The 5-seeded Golden Flashes have returned plenty of personnel from the 2017 MAC Tournament run, but the team will assume the underdog role once again on Friday. The MAC’s top-seeded Buffalo Bulls will look to avenge last year’s 68-65 quarterfinal loss to Rob Senderoff and his Kent State squad at 7:30 p.m. EST, on the anniversary of last year’s game.