Kent State used its brand of physical basketball and a great night on offense to defeat the regular-season champion Toledo and secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017, downing the Rockets by a final score of 93-78 on Saturday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland Ohio.
The Golden Flashes battled with the Rockets — who came into the contest with a 17-game win streak — wire-to-wire until late in the second half, when they caught fire and pulled away. Last year’s MAC Player of the Year Sincere Carry led his squad with 26 points while Malique Jacobs and a pair of Kent State bench players came through in a big way.
Early on, Kent State and Toledo traded several runs. The Rockets jumped out to a 10–4 lead but the Golden Flashes responded with a 23–6 run to give themselves an 11 point lead. Forward VonCameron Davis made two big threes during the spurt — his only points of the game. Inevitably, Toledo’s conference-leading offense got back in rhythm and found themselves down by just one at the break. While RayJ Dennis was contained for much of the first half, Setric Millner Jr. came up big for the Rockets, scoring 15 of his 25 points in the period.
The second half started out much more back and forth as Dennis and Carry showed why they are the two most recent conference MVPs. Dennis scored 21 of his 25 points in the half, hitting tough contested shots, while Carry showed quickness and strength on both ends of the floor. In addition to finding multiple ways to score on offense, he drew two charges on defense.
With the clock under seven minutes, Kent State locked in and gained separation. The momentum shift was sparked by two emphatic dunks by Chris Payton — who came off the bench and finished with 17 points. Despite a timeout by Tod Kowalczyk following the second dunk that made it an eight point game with 6:16 remaining, the Rockets had no responses left in them.
The relentless Kent State defense did not allow an easy bucket as the offense caught fire. Malique Jacobs was once again a force down the stretch for the Golden Flashes as he finished with 18 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. The gold clad fans erupted when MAC Sixth Man of the Year Jalen Sullinger drained a corner three to put his team up 11 with 4:00 left. The Kent State crowd gave a similar response when Sincere Carry knocked down a triple of his own a minute later to twist the knife further on Toledo. In the final minutes, Carry got well-earned MVP chants as he stood at the free throw line in the game’s dying moments.
An impressive aspect about Kent State’s win was that it outplayed Toledo on offense. The Flashes shot 55.7 percent from the field compared to the Rockets’ 42.4 percentage, while picking up eight more assists than their in-state rivals.
Kowalczyk’s group once again finishes the season with frustration. Despite winning the conference regular in each of the last three seasons, Toledo was unable to get it done in Cleveland. The Rockets’ NCAA Tournament drought will extend into its 44th year, but they will have an opportunity to play in the NIT for the 12th time in team history (and for the fourth season in a row) if they so choose.
The Golden Flashes, who were considered MAC favorites until Toledo’s huge win streak, proved to be the best team in the conference with a stellar weekend in Cleveland.
Kent State will have a ton of confidence going into the NCAA Tournament as they await seeding on Selection Sunday.