The Kent State Golden Flashes can say they made the Final 34, but after Friday night’s 97-80 loss to the UCLA Bruins, they cannot say they made the Elite Eight as they did 15 years ago.
The first half of the final tip-off in the first round saw the Flashes come out ice cold. A pair of 8-0 Bruin runs sandwiched a single Jimmy Hall lay-up, as UCLA jumped out to a 16-2 lead right off the bat. After Hall and Jaylin Walker were able to find their stroke to help claw the Flashes back to within single digits, the Bruins again went a run - this time a 10-2 margin - to extend their lead to a half-high 17 points. But Walker and Deon Edwin hit some shots down the stretch to close the gap down the stretch.
A crucial moment appeared to occur with about a minute to go, as UCLA’s lottery pick prospect Lonzo Ball came down awkwardly over Kevin Zabo on a lay-up attempt. Ball appeared in a considerable amount of pain in his hip/tailbone area, but would finish the half. In all, the late run pulled the Flashes to just an eight point deficit at 47-39 against the #3 seed in the South Regional.
The run continued in the 2nd half, as Kent State came out firing on all cylinders. A 9-2 run would cut the Bruin lead to just four points, as Jaylin Walker’s three-pointer made it a 54-50 with 16:41 to go in the game. With all the momentum, UCLA head coach Steve Alford called timeout to rally his troops.
And that seemed to do the trick. From that point on, the Flashes never got as close the rest of the game. The Bruins would use an 8-2 run to re-extend the lead out to double-digits, and the two teams would trade blows for the next few minutes. But after a Zabo lay-up with 7:36 to go made it a 74-66 game, the Bruins would put the hammer down, going on a 20-4 run over the next 5 minutes to ice the game completely. The run would be part of a 12 minute stretch where UCLA did not miss a shot, ending late in the game after a lay-up clanked off the back of the iron before the final buzzer sounded.
In his final game for the Flashes, Hall had a superb double-double, scoring 20 points and grabbing 15 rebounds before fouling out late. Walker led Kent State in scoring, putting up 23 points, but shot 9-for-23 from the floor and 5-for-13 from beyond the arc. Edwin added 18 and Zabo had 12. Jalin Avery and Danny Pippen were the only other Flashes to score at all with 5 and 2 points respectively.
For the Bruins, TJ Leaf paced the team inside all night, finishing with 23 points. Ball finished with 15 points, but was mostly quiet after a hot start. Thomas Welsh, Aaron Holiday, and Isaac Hamilton added 16, 15, and 14 points respectively, with Holiday adding 11 assists to complete a double-double.
Kent State ends the year with a 22-14 record.