Survive and advance: Flashes outlast Ball State

Kent State center Adonis De La Rosa scored 17 points on 13-for-16 free-throw shooting and pulled down 10 rebounds during Kent State’s 76-73 MAC tournament quarterfinal win over Ball State.

Cameron Hoover

Four Kent State players finished in double-figures in a 76-73 win over Ball State in Thursday’s Mid-American Conference tournament quarterfinal at Quicken Loans Arena.

The Flashes (17-16) leapt out to an early lead thanks to red-hot shooting from junior point guard Jalen Avery. Avery made his first three shots from the field, including a three-pointer and two free throws.

Ball State (19-13) clawed back thanks to four three-pointers off the bench from freshman forward Zach Gunn. Heading into the break, the two teams were tied at 39.

The second half played out much like the first: The Flashes started the half on fire from the field and jumped out to a 10-point lead with 8:55 remaining. Just when Kent State looked like it could run away with it, foul trouble, which has plagued the Flashes all season long, reared its ugly head again.

Both of Kent State’s starting big men picked up their fourth fouls, Danny Pippen with 9:16 left and Adonis De La Rosa with 8:46 left.

The tandem sat on the bench for large portions of the next few minutes, but both played their normal rotations for the final four minutes.

“At some points, we were just trying to get through the game to some degree,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said. “But the last four minutes of the game, you have to have your (best) guys on the court. They’ve got to be able to make plays without fouling. … They were still aggressive, and they were still confident.”

Kent State looked to be in trouble with 2:15 left when Gunn came down and nailed his fifth three-pointer of the game to give Ball State a 69-67 lead.

The Flashes came back to take the lead, 72-71. After senior guard Kevin Zabo missed a layup, De La Rosa risked his fifth foul to tap out the rebound. Avery collected the loose ball and made a contested layup with 24.3 seconds to put the Flashes up by three.

Kent State would go on to close it out at the free-throw line, going 2-for-4 in the final minute to eke out another win.

De La Rosa finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds, going 13-for-16 from the free-throw line. Two of Ball State’s forwards, Kyle Mallers (13) and Tahjai Teague (12), finished with double-digit rebounds.

De La Rosa said he appreciated the physical nature the game was played with.

“We already knew it would be a physical game,” De La Rosa said. “It’s the third time we’ve played these guys, so we knew what to expect. It’s just staying true to the gameplan.”

Kent State junior guard Jaylin Walker finished with a game-high 19 points, continuing his impressive scoring run at Quicken Loans Arena. He has now averaged 24 points per game in his last three contests on the Cleveland Cavaliers home floor.

“It’s March madness,” Walker said. “It’s win or go home. That’s my mindset. I have to bring it every night and win.”

Tayler Persons led the Cardinals with 19 points, and Teague contributed 17 to go along with his 12 rebounds.

Avery and Zabo each added 16 points.

Senderoff continued to preach his team’s mental toughness and hard-nosed play style as a reason the Flashes could clinch another NCAA tournament bid this season.

“These guys are tough, they’re resilient and they compete,” Senderoff said of his team. “When we’re in a close game, we have a firm belief that we’re going to find a way to win. … We’re not perfect, but when it comes to competitive spirit, you really can’t question anyone in the locker room.”

Kent State looks to continue its run at a MAC championship when it takes on No. 1 seed Buffalo at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

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