Four takeaways from Kent State’s win over Eastern Michigan

Kent State’s Anthony Roberts takes the ball past Eastern Michigan’s defense on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. He scored eight points.

Henry Palattella

Rob Senderoff wasn’t going to let his players answer a question about what’s coming in March.

After Kent State’s 71-58 win over Eastern Michigan, Antonio Williams and Philip Whittington were asked a question in the postgame press conference about if the win would give the Flashes any momentum heading into the new month.

Senderoff wasn’t going to give them a chance to answer. 

“We’re just focusing on the next game,” Senderoff said. “We’ll talk about March in March.”

With that, the players got up and began to walk out of the media room, their portion of the postgame press conference done.

“That’s what you would have said anyway, right?” Senderoff chuckled to his players as they left.

“I was going to say we’re winning it all,” Whittington said. 

“We’re a force for everybody,” Williams quipped.

It’s understandable that the two of them should feel as if they can take on anyone in the Mid-American Conference.

Williams turned in a stellar performance as point guard while filling in for the injured Jalen Avery and dropped 20 points while electrifying the M.A.C. Center crowd with two highlight reel dunks. Whittington recorded a double-double against one of the longest and lengthiest teams in the MAC.   

When the dust settled, the Flashes not only put together one of their best defensive efforts of the season, but also avenged their 34-point loss to the Eagles from earlier in the season.

Not bad considering it came on a night that featured a spotty performance from Jaylin Walker (3-for-14 shooting) and Avery watching on the sideline in sweatpants.

‘Bully the bully’: The Achilles heel for the Flashes in their January loss to Eastern Michigan was their inability to counter the Eagles’ length, as EMU shot 61 percent from the field and scored 34 points in the paint in the win. Kent State coach Rob Senderoff countered that Saturday by starting big men Akiean Frederick and Whittington together for the first time all season. 

Whittington responded by scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, while Frederick scored four points and dished out a career-high four assists before fouling out with four minutes left.

“Having two bigs together was a huge help,” Whittington said. “They always talk about ‘bully the bully’ because they play two traditional bigs. We wanted to prove that we were better than them, and I think that’s what we did.”

The duo also combined to play solid post defense on the Eagles’ James Thompson IV. Thompson, who entered the game averaging a double-double, finished with six points and nine rebounds.

“He’s a great player, but I wanted to prove that I was better than him,” Whittington said of Thompson. “I just came at his game. I was looking to compete, and I think I did that well.”

While BJ Duling might not have made the offensive impact of Whittington (he only scored one point in nine minutes), he made some big hustle plays for the Flashes, especially on the defensive end, and finished with three steals and two assists. 

Duling has now played in three straight games for the first time since mid-January, and, depending on matchups, could still see some key minutes even after Avery returns from his injury. While he’s not the biggest scoring threat on the floor (he’s only averaging three points per game), he’s still an athletic, 6-foot-7 forward who can provide a momentum-shifting play.

Defensive-minded: Eastern Michigan’s 58 points mark the second-lowest point total that Kent State has given up this season, trailing only the 52 they allowed to Ohio on Jan. 15. The Flashes went on a 16-5 run to open the second half, which deflated any momentum that Eastern Michigan had out of the locker room. Kevin McAdoo and Tariq Silver were the only Eagles to finish in double figures and finished with 13 points and 10 points, respectively.

“We guarded, and that to me is what gave us some separation,” Senderoff said. “We were able to get out in transition, and I think that had a big impact on the game.”

Frederick and Whittington held Thompson to six points, while Williams and freshman guard Anthony Roberts helped hold starting point guard Paul Jackson to three points. Jackson went 0-for-9 from the field with five turnovers after making his first attempt, which went a long way toward the Flashes’ defensive dominance. 

“He’s a good, quick player,” Williams said of Jackson. “The scouting report was to close out on him hard, and I remembered that in my head and forced him to the spots where he didn’t want to go.”

For Senderoff, it was another great defensive performance from someone who he thinks is one of the best in the conference. 

“He’s a really good player, but to me, Booman (Antonio Williams) is one of the elite defenders in our conference,” Senderoff said. “He’s not as well-known as some of the other good defenders in the league, but he’s establishing himself as that. I thought he did a great job against Jackson.”

Point man: With Avery out, Williams stepped into the role of starting point guard. Williams spent some time at point this season, but he’s been shooting guard most of the time, a position that compliments his quick, slashy style of getting to the basket. Williams said after the game that he’s had to make some big adjustments, such as not always crashing on rebounds and picking up the slack as a vocal leader, something Avery is known for. After the game, Senderoff said Avery is still “day to day” and that he could get better any day and be healthy enough to practice. 

While the absence of Avery is a big one for the Flashes, there are worse people to hand the keys to than Williams. While Senderoff admitted he’s simplified things for Williams and Roberts, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“(We) tried to simplify things, but against zone, that’s kind of helpful because there’s not a ton of plays to run, you’re just cutting and spacing,” Senderoff said. “Against Western, we tried to simplify some stuff, and instead of a package of 40 plays, we ran one of 10 plays to make it a little bit easier for him and Anthony.”

Roberts finished with eight points in a season-high 32 minutes off the bench, and it’s clear he’s beginning to let the college game come to him more. While he’s still going through the same growing pains any college freshman would go through, his game has stepped up recently when the Flashes needed it most.  

After the game, Senderoff said the only quote he wanted on him about Roberts was that “he needed to guard better” before saying he had played well in back-to-back games.

Walk signal: It’s incredible to think that what is arguably the Flashes’ best win this season came in spite of Jaylin Walker. While Walker finished in double figures with 15 points, they all came in the second half when the game was already decided.

He wasn’t without a highlight, however, as with a little less than seven minutes left he went coast-to-coast on one of the nastiest sequences I’ve seen at Kent State. He pulled off a streetball-esque fake pass at half-court before going behind the back to finish with a euro step. Even when he’s having a tough night, he still makes it exciting.

“Jaylin played great,” Senderoff said. “If he can play well even when he’s not shooting it well, it really helps our team. Obviously, there’s the nights he shoots it well, and then we’re able to win by big margins. I think it’s a confidence builder for our entire roster.”

Almost every time Walker touches the ball, he gets hit with an immediate double team, so it makes sense that his shooting numbers have taken a dip. And don’t get me wrong, if this team wants to make a run into March, they’ll need Walker to find his stroke from deep. But for right now, he’s been able to keep the Flashes in games thanks to more than just his jumper.

Henry Palattella is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].