Avery’s overtime heroics power Flashes past Central Michigan in MAC Tournament

Central Michigan junior guard Marcus Keene bites his jersey while waiting to shake hands with Kent State after loosing in overtime 116-106 in the first round of the MAC Men’s Basketball Tournament at the M.A.C. Center on Monday, March 6, 2017. Keene had a game high 41 points.

By: Nick Buzzelli

After the final whistle sounded Monday night, Marcus Keene trotted back to his team’s bench, grabbed a collapsible chair and slowly twirled it above his head before assuming his position at the back of Central Michigan’s handshake line.

For the nation’s leading scorer — who averaged a shade under 30 points per game this season — it served as a way to vent frustration, knowing that his historic run into college basketball lore may have ended with a simple uncontested layup to cut CMU’s deficit to 10 with 14 seconds remaining.

At the same time, Kent State sophomore Jalen Avery was mobbed by his teammates at the opposite end of the floor in celebration of his overtime heroics that propelled the Flashes into the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament.

Playing in possibly his final game this season if CMU isn’t invited to a mid-major postseason tournament, Keene, who had 41 points on 15-31 shooting, did exactly what he was expected to: log long minutes without a break and make improbable step-back three-pointers over defenders six inches taller than him look easy. 

Avery, on the other hand, did his best Keene impersonation for the small — but loud — crowd of 2,139 fans scattered throughout the M.A.C. Center.

Despite facilitating much of the Flashes’ offense from his point guard position in regulation, Avery went off in overtime, scoring 16 of his 24 points during the final five minutes of play en route to Kent State’s (19-13) thrilling 116-106 win over the No. 11 seeded Chippewas (16-16).

“Like I said at the beginning of this year, I just play to win,” Avery said following the victory. “Whatever it is that my team needs me to do — whether that’s score a lot or score a little and just facilitate and run the team — I just do whatever it is that we need to do to win.”

Tied at 91 with seven seconds remaining, senior Jimmy Hall attempted a turnaround hook shot in the low post to give his team the lead, but it was partially blocked by CMU’s DaRohn Scott.

The Chippewas’ forward heaved the ball down court to a streaking Braylon Rayson — who tallied 32 points on a 9-19 mark from beyond the arc. He couldn’t handle the pass, but saved it from sailing out of bounds, tipping the ball to a wide open David DiLeo for a game-winning three point attempt.

However, DiLeo’s shot hit rimmed out, forcing overtime.

Keene’s contested three-pointer at the top of the key nine seconds in was reminiscent of his overtime performance on Jan. 28, when he scored 11 of his 41 in the final frame in a 105-98 win.

But Avery responded by going 3-3 from beyond the arc and 7-8 from the free throw line in overtime to secure the win.

When Avery was a freshman, Rob Senderoff said the point guard would sometimes stay late after games practicing his shot on ‘The Gun,’ an automatic rebounding device, preparing for his opportunity.

And Monday night, he made the most of his chance. 

“Last year (Avery) didn’t play a ton,” said Senderoff, Kent State’s seventh year head coach. “You got to have some character as a basketball player to be able to stick through tough times individually, and tonight he had an opportunity because they were doubling (Hall) and the ball kept finding him.”

Hall said the win signified the ability for him and his teammates to rally behind one another after digging themselves into a 15-point hole early in the game.

“We knew that they were going to come out firing. They have some pretty good scorers, but we just had to keep biting down and wearing them out,” said Hall, who recorded 33 points and 13 rebounds. “We knew that we weren’t going to fold in times of adversity, so we just had to come together as a team and just get as many stops as we could.”

For Senderoff, playing in the final game of the MAC Tournament quarterfinals Thursday night against the University at Buffalo, a team the Flashes split the season series with, might give his players extra time to recover from the overtime win.

“I guess it’s probably good when you play an overtime game to be able to get that extra two or three hours (of rest), which we didn’t get because we played that Friday night game at 9,” he said. “I was more worried about today than I will be (Thursday) about that in terms of the minutes.” 

Nick Buzzelli is a sports reporter, contact him at [email protected].