Flashes gear up for Wagon Wheel showdown with playoff positioning at stake

Junior guard Jaylin Walker chases a loose ball during Kent State’s 78-68 win over Akron on Feb. 17, 2018. Walker scored a season-high 27 points in the win.

Cameron Hoover

As if the game needed any extra drama, Kent State (15-15, 9-8 Mid-American Conference) will travel to James A. Rhodes arena at 7 p.m. Friday to take on crosstown rivals Akron (12-17, 5-12 MAC) with potential playoff seeding on the line.

Many scenarios are possible, but a first-round bye to Quicken Loans Arena in the MAC tournament isn’t completely out of the question for the Flashes, who were the only team in the conference to enter MAC play with a losing record.

Kent State coach Rob Senderoff tried to downplay the significance of any one game, but said his team was playing some of its best basketball of the season down the stretch.

“Right now, I think it’s just trying to play as well as we can play here toward the end of the season,” Senderoff said. “We’ve won three of our last four (games). I think we’re getting a little bit better defensively, and winning close games helps. The rivalry is great, and the seeding stuff is great, but it’s more trying to get ready for next week.”

Junior point guard Jalen Avery acknowledged the excitement of the position the team was in, but urged his teammates to keep Friday’s game in perspective.

“This is a mandatory win for us,” Avery said. “We know we need some things to play out for us in order to get the No. 4 seed, but the only thing we can do is just control what we can control. That’s winning this game. That’s our main objective right now.”

Kent State is looking for a regular season sweep of the Zips for the first time since the 2009-10 season. The Flashes beat Akron, 78-68, on Feb. 17, thanks to Avery’s 16 points in the final 4:47.

Senderoff said that game served as a good learning experience for the Flashes heading into the rematch.

“They’re a good team, and they’re tough to defend,” Senderoff said. “They’re competing really hard. I’ve listened to their coach speak, and he’s been really happy with how hard they’ve played here of late. It’s Senior Day for them. It’s Kent State-Akron. We know it’s a big game for them, and it’s a big game for us.”

Emotions can run high on the court during rivalry games, and Avery stressed the importance of keeping a level head despite any feelings of animosity between the two teams.

“That’s our upperclassmen’s job — myself, (senior guard Kevin) Zabo, Desmond (Ridenour),” Avery said. “We have to be able to keep the team together and take everything one possession at a time.”

For Zabo, who celebrated his career during Senior Night before dropping 21 points in Kent State’s 90-83 overtime win over Miami (OH) Tuesday, this Wagon Wheel game had something special.

It’s (most likely) his last one.

“I’m not going to lie to you and say this is like any other game,” Zabo said. “It’s the last game of the season — my last regular season game as a senior. And it’s Akron. We’re not trying to get a split like last year. We’re trying to get 2-0 this year.”

Kent State and Akron will face off at 7 p.m. Friday at Akron’s James A. Rhodes Arena.

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