Walker, Avery propel Kent State to Wagon Wheel victory

Kent State guard Jaylin Walker drives to the hoop during the Flashes’ 78-68 win over Akron on Feb. 17, 2018. Walker scored a season-high 27 points in the win.

Cameron Hoover

Kent State coach Rob Senderoff only needed a few words to sum up junior point guard Jalen Avery’s performance down the stretch against crosstown rivals Akron Saturday.

“Big time.”

Avery’s heroics, coupled with two last-second free throws each from Jaylin Walker and sophomore forward Danny Pippen, staved off a Zips comeback attempt to give Kent State (13-14, 7-7 Mid-American Conference) a much-needed Wagon Wheel win over visiting Akron (11-15, 4-10 MAC), 78-68.

Avery was held scoreless in a first half that saw the Zips on top for a majority of the period. Akron leapt out to a 12-2 lead, but the Flashes gradually chipped away enough to enter halftime with a 32-31 lead.

The teams went back and forth throughout the entire second half, as the lead changed hands six times and was tied twice. The momentum swung in Kent State’s favor during the first four minutes of the period.

Sophomore guard Mitch Peterson dove on the ground for a loose ball, which eventually squirted out to Walker. Walker gathered the ball and threw an alley-oop from just inside halfcourt to a cutting BJ Duling, who slammed it home with authority for two of his career-high 13 points.

The next three Kent State possessions ended in three-pointers, including two from Walker and another from Duling to put the Flashes up, 47-39, at the under-16-minute media timeout. Walker finished with a season-high seven three-pointers made.

Akron came storming back with a 7-0 run of its own, setting the stage for a clutch-time showdown in the last four minutes.

Enter Jalen Avery.

The junior point guard scored all 16 of his points in the last 4:47 of the game, including two three-pointers, two and-ones and a perfect 6-6 from the free-throw line.

“I feel like that’s my role as the point guard,” Avery said. “First, to be able to continue to run our team and get everybody else their shots, but also at the end of the games when people drop off of me, I need to be aggressive. I have to make the defense respect me so my teammates can get open looks.”

Senderoff praised Avery’s ability to make clutch plays down the stretch in a close game against a rival, especially when the Flashes had been frustrated over the past few weeks during a four-game losing streak.

“(Avery) made a lot of big plays,” Senderoff said. “Once he hit that first three, he had some confidence. … He did what (Akron’s) guys were doing to us: He jabbed at (Akron center Mark Kostelac) and got him to take a step back and hit another one. After that, the gaps were there on their switches. He was able to get to the rim and make some big, big baskets for us.”

Walker led the Flashes with 27 points on 7-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc, adding four assists and two rebounds.

Senderoff praised Walker’s all-around performance and didn’t want the focus to lie solely on the junior guard’s scoring output, a season-high and his most since scoring 30 in last season’s MAC championship game against Akron.

“I think (Walker’s) really, really trying to let things come to him,” Senderoff said. “Tonight, he had four assists and two turnovers — half of our team’s assists. He defended really well. I think he probably played his best game of the season tonight in terms of his overall offense, defense and letting things come to him.”

Senderoff said he was pleased with how all his players hustled and kept their focus throughout what he called a “great win.”

“It was a really good game — the type of game you come to expect when Kent plays Akron,” Senderoff said. “I’m really proud of our team, everybody on the roster. We were down five with six minutes to go and clearly frustrated in terms of how we were playing. But our guys stuck together and made some huge, huge plays down the stretch.”

Senderoff mentioned Duling as someone who gave Kent State a boost on both sides of the ball when starters Adonis De La Rosa and Danny Pippen left the game with foul trouble.

“We were really struggling with (Adonis and Danny) picking up those fouls,” Senderoff said. “(Akron) started the game off 12-2; we couldn’t guard them with our big lineup. BJ really provided a huge spark for us.”

The win snaps a four-game losing streak for the Flashes, the team’s first win since their Jan. 30 upset over Buffalo, the team that clinched the MAC East Monday.

Malcolm Duvivier led the Zips with 27 points on 8-for-16 shooting, followed by Daniel Utomi who added 20 points. Akron still has yet to win a road game this season, dropping to 0-12 outside the friendly confines of James A. Rhodes Arena.

Walker said the win over a hated rival could give the team confidence moving forward, but Senderoff wanted to keep the victory in perspective with the rest of the season heading into March’s MAC Tournament.

“I feel like we think we could play with anybody and beat anybody,” Senderoff said, citing the team’s wins over Buffalo and MAC West contenders Ball State. “But we also know that if we don’t play well, we could lose to anybody. We just need to try to get better each game and try to build as much momentum as we can heading into March.”

Kent State returns to the court to take on Ohio (11-15, 4-10 MAC) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ohio University Convocation Center. The Flashes beat the Bobcats, 70-69, behind 24 points from Kevin Zabo on Jan. 12.

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