Avery’s free throws cap defensive stalemate in Flashes win

Kent State senior guard Desmond Ridenour rises to block an attempt by Bowling Green’s Justin Turner on Feb. 24. The Flashes won on last-second free throws, 64-63. [FILE]

Cameron Hoover

Things looked bleak for Kent State when Jalen Avery caught an inbounds pass with seven seconds left against Bowling Green on Saturday.

Demajeo Wiggins had just scored his 13th and 14th points from the free-throw line to put the Falcons up, 63-62. Wiggins had been a problem inside for the Flashes all game, finishing with 14 points and 13 rebounds, his 14th double-double of the season and fifth in a row.

Kent State had shot the ball poorly most of the night, especially in an uncharacteristically low-scoring second half. In the second half, the Flashes had shot 38.1 percent from the field, including 33.3 percent from three-point range and 52.6 percent from the free-throw line.

With Adonis De La Rosa (fouled out) and Kevin Zabo (fouled out and injured) stuck on the bench, Avery wasted no time.

The junior point guard went from one basket to the other in just four seconds, driving to the hoop for a layup. The ball bounced around the rim and then out, but a referee called a foul on Bowling Green’s Dylan Frye. He had made 3-of-4 free throws himself in the final two minutes.

Avery stepped to the line with 3.9 seconds left.

Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said the following moments are what makes — or breaks — a winning point guard.

“Late in the game,” Senderoff said, “the point guard has to be able to make those type of plays.”

Avery, who has made leadership and performance in close games an emphasis this season, coolly knocked down both free throws to put the Flashes on the high side, 64-63.

Bowling Green’s Antwon Lillard received the ensuing inbounds pass and got a good look at a three-pointer over a stumbling Desmond Ridenour. The ball went halfway in, but popped back out as the buzzer sounded.

Kent State (14-15, 8-8 Mid-American Conference) had eked out a much-needed win over Bowling Green (16-13, 7-9 MAC), 64-63.

Avery said he appreciated the pressure. The junior point guard scored all 16 of his points in the last 4:47 of Kent State’s 78-68 win over Akron on Feb. 17.

“I just think that’s a point guard’s thing,” Avery said. “Being a point guard, you have to step up in clutch situations. You have to make free throws. I have to be able to uplift my team, even when we’re not playing as well as we can. That’s just my job.”

Senderoff said the final seconds wouldn’t have mattered if it weren’t for his team’s second-half defensive dominance, which he called “the story of the game.”

After allowing Bowling Green to shoot 50 percent from the floor in the first half, Kent State held the Falcons to just 21.1 percent shooting in the second, including 1-for-12, including 8.3 percent from three-point range.

“In my eyes, we did a better job in transition,” Senderoff said of his team’s defense. “In the first half, a lot of their baskets were transition baskets. I thought we tried to do a good job defensively in the first half, but when you give up that many transition baskets, it makes a big difference. To me, it starts with our ability in the second half to get back in transition and make it harder for them.”

One of the reasons the Flashes were so potent defensively down the stretch was sophomore forward Danny Pippen, whose seven blocks set a new career high. Four of those blocks came in the final minute.

“I was just trying to impact the game in the best way I can,” Pippen said. “Blocking shots is really my thing. That’s what I do. I was just trying to be everywhere, and that’s what we needed tonight.”

Zabo broke out of his mini slump to lead the Flashes with 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting. Pippen added 11 points and eight rebounds. De La Rosa, Avery and Jaylin Walker rounded out the double-digit scorers with 10 apiece.

Freshman guard Justin Turner led the Falcons with 17 points, while Frye added 14. Lillard struggled on the night, adding nine points on 2-for-12 shooting.

The win secures at least a first-round home game in the MAC Tournament for Kent State, and a first-round bye is not completely out of the question for the Flashes. 

Kent State returns to the court to host Miami (OH) (15-14, 7-8 MAC) in the final regular season home game at 7 p.m. Saturday at the M.A.C. Center.

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