Flashes book trip to Cleveland after Zabo’s buzzer-beater

Kevin Zabo’s teammates pile on top of him after he scored the game-winning basket on March 5, 2018. The Flashes won, 61-59, in the first round of the Mid-American Conference tournament.

Cameron Hoover

Kent State coach Rob Senderoff smiled as he sat down for the opening statement of his press conference following the Flashes’ 61-59 win over Northern Illinois in the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament Monday.

“It’s March, and that’s really what this is about, right?” Senderoff asked. “Unbelievable endings, unbelievable games, unbelievable storylines.”

The storylines came to the forefront when Huskies guard Eugene German stepped to the free-throw line with 7.4 seconds left. German, who entered the game as the leading scorer in the MAC, hadn’t scored in the second half.

Now, he had a chance to give No. 12 seed Northern Illinois a one-point lead over No. 5 seed Kent State, setting the Huskies up for an epic upset.

German sunk the first free throw, and Kent State called a timeout.

German’s second free throw bounced around the rim and out. The score remained tied at 59 with 7.4 seconds left.

Kent State center Adonis De La Rosa ripped down the rebound and immediately threw an outlet pass to Kevin Zabo. Zabo ran to the opposite three-point line, where he was met by a Northern Illinois defender.

Zabo spun to his left, past another Husky, before taking off for a game-winning left-handed layup. Zabo fell to the floor as the ball dropped through the net, and he was mobbed by his teammates before he had the chance to regain himself.

Zabo didn’t break a straight face through the whole process, and the Flashes booked a ticket to Quicken Loans Arena for a quarterfinals matchup against No. 4 seed Ball State.

“It was a lot of relief, more than anything,” Zabo said. “I was just like, ‘Man, thank God we’re going to Cleveland.’ That’s all these guys in the locker room were trying to do was just get to Cleveland, no matter if it’s an ugly win or what not. At this point in the year, coach (Senderoff) always says, ‘It’s all about the W.’”

The ugliness of the game was on full display for the first 39 minutes. The two teams combined to shoot 36.2 percent from the field, and the Flashes shot just 8-for-30 (26.7 percent) from three-point range.

If you ask Senderoff, though, this was a result of his team’s rabid defensive effort, not due to any offensive shortcomings.

“We did a really good job — probably our best defensive game of the season by far overall,” Senderoff said. “We made just enough plays. Danny (Pippen) had six blocks. Overall, just finding a way to make enough plays was what the game was about.”

Pippen blocked three or more shots in eight games this season.

“He’s a life-saver,” Zabo said of Pippen. “The main thing is trying to make it hard on the perimeter guys to drive to the rim. If we can’t, we can always count on Danny. That’s something we’ve worked on: to not foul perimeter guys when they drive. Let them get to Danny, and he’ll clean it up.”

Zabo finished with a game-high 19 points, while Jalen Avery added 13 and Adonis De La Rosa chipped in with 10 points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes.

Levi Bradley finished with 18 points for the Huskies, and German ended with 12, eight points short of his season average. He scored one point in the second half.

Avery noted the parallels between the Flashes’ performance against Northern Illinois Monday and their first-round game during last year’s MAC Tournament against Central Michigan. The Flashes won that game, 116-106, in overtime, and it jumpstarted the team to a conference title.

“I think games like this give us momentum,” Avery said. “Last year, we played a game just like this, and it gave us momentum going into Cleveland. I feel like we’re going to continue to have that same momentum this time.”

It may not have been the prettiest game for fans to watch, but Senderoff said the hustle and grit of the Flashes’ performance may be what carries the team to another deep postseason run.

“We figured out a way,” Senderoff said. “At this point, we are who we are. This is the team we have. As long as we fight and keep playing as hard as we can play, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re certainly not a perfect team by any stretch, but we also have never shown any quit when things haven’t gone well.

“To me, that’s more important than being the best offensive or the best defensive team. When you compete to the buzzer, I think that says a lot about you.”

Kent State will return to the court for a quarterfinals game against No. 4 seed Ball State at a time to be determined Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena. The teams split the season series in MAC play this year.

Cameron Hoover is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].