Kent State came into Friday night’s nationally televised rivalry game fresh off of a 76-72 home victory over Miami on Tuesday. It was a much needed win as it has been a rocky trip through the MAC schedule for the young Flashes club. They ran directly into a four-game losing streak at the start of conference play, only to turn things around and take four-of-five and follow that up with consecutive losses in winnable games.
The Flashes turbulent ride had them sitting at 4th place in the MAC East, as they traveled 15 minutes east to take on their arch-rival and MAC leading Akron. With the Flashes roster chocked full of underclassmen, they brought 8 players yet to encounter the Akron-Kent State Rivalry. As eight and half point dogs, the Flashes headed into as hostile an environment as one faces in mid-major basketball. A tall task for sure, Coach Rob Senderoff saw it as an opportunity, “I think this game’s really different than all of them...These guys are clearly the class of the conference heading into the stretch. This is a big opportunity for us.”
Akron came into Friday night riding a 30 game home winning streak and sitting atop the MAC by an impregnable four games. With the exception of an 85-70 loss in Athens, Ohio on February 4th, the Zips have gone unbeaten in the conference and rolled to a 22-4 record overall. Friday night was the first of two meetings in two weeks for the cross-town rivals and Akron had the JAR rocking right from the tip.
Despite the raucous crowd and pre-game hype, the Flashes came out gunning with a pair of early triples and grabbed an 8-6 lead. While they were able to hold Akron to just 3-of-8 shooting early on, the Flashes would soon cool off themselves. The Flashes would trail 14-12 at the 10:43 mark, shooting just 4-of-16 from the field. While their shooting struggled, Kent didn’t turn the ball over once, keeping them in the game. Akron would keep the pressure on though and push the lead to 23-18 at the 7:50 mark.
Jaylin Walker kept the Flashes within reach scoring 8 of Kent State’s first 18 points. With 3:58 in the half, Kent State’s Deon Edwin would turn an Akron turnover into a three point play, cutting the deficit to 31-27. With Akron shooting 59% from the field, Kent still managed to hang close, committing just one turnover in the half. The Zips would go without a field goal in the last three minutes of the first half but still take a 36-31 lead into the break.
The first half saw both club’s beat each other at their own strength’s as Akron out-rebounded Kent State 21-17 and the Flashes only turned it over once. The Flashes had no answer for Antino Jackson as he was 5-of-6 from the field in the half. The Zips did a terrific job limiting Jimmy Hall to just 6 points and 3 rebounds. Kent State shot just 35% in the first half, yet only trailed by 5 points.
With a ratcheted up Akron crowd, ready for the second half, the Flashes came out attacking the rim. Kent State would go on an 11-2 run led by 6 points from Hall and 5 from Walker, taking the lead at 42-38 with 15:10 to play. The Zips would go just 1-of-8 and 0-for-4 from distance to start the half, going over six minutes without a point. A struggling Kwan Cheatham Jr. would remain cold, shooting 0-for-8 for the game.
With 12:57 to play, Edwin would score and get fouled, pushing the Kent State lead to 46-38. Akron would miss it’s 11th shot in a row before a timeout with 11:25 to play and the score 46-40. With emotions running high, the officials would go to replay after some shoving between players at the 10:39 mark. The Zips would take advantage of the stoppage and take back the lead at 46-45 with 10 minutes to play. Edwin would respond for the Flashes though with 8 straight points, capped by another three point play.
Akron came right back with their own though as Isiah Johnson would score and get fouled, cutting the Kent lead to 51-49 with 7:41 left. Jalen Avery would drill a huge triple to put the Flashes up 54-50. Cheatham missed the front end of a 1-and-1 for Akron and just when you thought it wasn’t his night, he would get his first bucket on an easy put-back then answer another Edwin three-ball with a fade away jumper from 15 feet.
With Kent State ahead 57-54, the sold-out crowd off 5,500 would come to their feet in a frenzy, only to see Hall hit a jump hook over Johnson to extend the Flashes lead to 59-54 as the clock ticked under 5 minutes. After a pair of free throws from Akron and a Hall dunk for Kent, Cheatham would drill a corner three and steal the ball from Edwin, resulting in a Noah Robotham lay-up to tie the game at 61-61, sending the JAR into bedlam with 3:36 to play.
The teams would exchange a pair of free throws and with the game tied at 63-63, Edwin would knock down a 16 footer on the baseline to grasp the lead for the Flashes with only 45.6 to play. Akron would go to Johnson on the low block and draw Hall’s fourth foul. Johnson would make the first and miss the second, forcing the Zips to foul Avery with 23.8 to go.
After Avery made both from the stripe and an Akron timeout, Kent would knock the ball out of bounds with 12.1 on the clock, leading 67-64. Cheatham would come up short on a deep three try and Edwin would get fouled with 6.1 to play. Edwin would hit both free throws and clinch the upset win for Kent State. Robotham made three free throws for the Zips with a second to play, but the buses were all ready warming as the Flashes pulled one out in a classic between the two rivals, 70-67.
The Kent State victory snapped Akron’s 30 game home winning streak which was second best in the country to only Oregon(41). The Flashes remain in play for one of the MAC’s top four seeds, with their best win of the season coming at the perfect time. The Flashes win the Wagon Wheel Challenge round 1 in fantastic fashion but Akron won’t have to wait long to get another shot at the Flashes, as the two clubs face again on Friday night, March 3rd at 9 PM on ESPN 2.
The Flashes were led by Edwin who put in 21 points and the game winner in a clutch performance. Hall would score 18 and Walker 16 in rout the Flashes win. Things don’t get easier for Kent State though as they go to Buffalo on Tuesday for a 7PM tip. Kent State moves to 15-12 overall and 7-7 in the conference and firmly entrenched in the thick of the MAC seeding race.
Akron drops to 22-5 overall and 12-2 in the MAC, where seeding is something they have no concerns about. Akron was led by Isiah Johnson with 18 points and 7 rebounds, while Daniel Utomi scored 16 off the bench on 4-of-4 from distance. The Zips will travel to Bowling Green to face the Falcons on Tuesday at 9 PM EST.