Walker, Zabo fuel second-half comeback as Flashes earn first MAC road win

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Kent State junior guard Jalen Avery drives to the hoop against Xavier freshman guard Elias Harden during Kent State’s 96-70 loss to Xavier Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. 

Cameron Hoover

Down by nine points at halftime at Central Michigan’s McGuirk Arena Saturday afternoon, Kent State looked like it was heading down a familiar road.

The Flashes showed spurts in that first half, but a combination of poor perimeter defense and star players like Jaylin Walker struggling to find their touch saw the Chippewas enter the break with a 41-32 lead.

Entering the game, Kent State was winless in its last six road games, including three Mid-American Conference contests. Going against a Central Michigan team that entered the game 8-2 at home, the Flashes looked to be headed to another road defeat.

Jaylin Walker had other ideas.

The junior guard made two wide open three-pointers from the same spot near the right corner to cut the Central Michigan lead to 47-45 with 16:04 left. A minute later, a layup from senior guard Kevin Zabo tied the game, and a pull-up jump shot in transition from Walker put Kent on the high side for the first time since a 17-13 lead early in the first half.

From there, the game went back and forth until a step-back three-pointer from Zabo with 1:27 left put the Flashes up seven points. Kent State (11-10, 5-3 MAC) made six free throws in the final minute of the game to seal the win, beating the Chippewas (13-8, 2-6 MAC), 84-76, for the second time this season.

The win was the Flashes’ first road win since Nov. 29 at Norfolk State and the team’s first road win in the Mid-American Conference.

“It’s good for the team,” coach Rob Senderoff said. “To have a good team in this league, you have to win some games on the road. It’s great to get it, and we have some others coming up where hopefully, we can look at this and use it as a learning experience to help us get some more when we play on the road coming up.”

As has been the case many times this season, Walker and Zabo carried most of the scoring load for the Flashes.

Zabo led the team in scoring for the fifth straight game, dropping in 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting, adding four steals. Zabo has now scored 20 or more points in five straight games, averaging 19.4 points per game in conference play.

“(Zabo) didn’t have a great start, but he was able to keep his head and his confidence,” Senderoff said. “For us as a team, that’s part of what we need. We need everybody to contribute.”

Walker followed closely behind Zabo with 21 points of his own, including five three-pointers and eight rebounds, a season-high. The game was his first time over 20 points since scoring 26 in the Flashes’ last meeting with the Chippewas, an 85-69 home win on Jan. 6.

Senderoff said the team’s collective effort was more important to the win than any one player’s performance.

“The biggest difference between us now and earlier in the year is that we were so dependent on (Walker) playing well that when he didn’t, … it really hurt us,” Senderoff said. “We have a lot more guys playing well now and playing more consistenly.”

Junior center Adonis De La Rosa pitched in with his sixth double-double of the season, making all eight of his free throws en route to 14 points, also pulling down 10 rebounds.

Junior guard Shawn Roundtree led Central Michigan with 17 points and five assists, while senior forward Luke Meyer made three of his five three-pointers en route to a 15-point performance.

The Flashes return to the court for a key MAC East matchup at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 30 at the M.A.C. Center as they host division leaders Buffalo (16-5, 8-0 MAC).

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