Lurken honored to anchor Kent State’s program turnaround

Junior+guard+Larissa+Lurken+steals+the+ball+from+the+University+of+Michigan+WNIT+game%2C+Thursday+March+16%2C+2017.%C2%A0

Junior guard Larissa Lurken steals the ball from the University of Michigan WNIT game, Thursday March 16, 2017. 

Nick Buzzelli

When it was all over, after he congratulated his players and took time to reflect on Kent State’s accomplishments over the past four months, Kent State coach Todd Starkey hugged senior Larissa Lurken — the catalyst of this season’s turnaround — and personally thanked her for her contributions to the program by simply stating, “Couldn’t have done it without you.”

Her career had just come to a close 15-minutes prior via a seven point loss to the University of Michigan in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. Yet, Lurken wasn’t upset.

She was disappointed after being bounced by Toledo in the Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinals on March 8, but this was a different feeling. At this point, all Lurken could do was smile.

Four years ago, after signing with Kent State following a stellar career at Park High School in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, Lurken intended to help the team shed its losing reputation. It didn’t occur in her first three seasons as a Flash.

But once Starkey was hired as head coach in April 2016, everything fell into place. And she was finally able to leave the program in a better state than it was when she arrived as a freshman.

“(Helping the program move forward) is what I wanted to do when I came here. I’m sad it happened so late, but I’m glad I got a chance to,” Lurken said following her final collegiate game. “That’s how I feel, and I’ll never forget it. One of the best seasons, if not the best, I’ve ever had in my entire career. I’m happy to go out like that.”

Lurken was a scorer under former head coach Danielle O’Banion, but her game was primarily built around her jump shot. While the individual offense was there, the team success was non-existent.

Kent State went a combined 18-71 from 2013-16 and never advanced past the first round of the MAC Tournament.

Starkey, though, convinced Lurken to drive toward the basket and draw contact, which improved her average to 23.5 points per game and enabled him and his staff to put together a 19-win season and a 13-5 mark in conference play, the best since 2009-10 season.

He doesn’t bring up last year’s 6-23 record for comparison, though. And neither do his players.

The team viewed this season as a clean slate, one that wasn’t going to be defined by what they were or weren’t able to accomplish a year ago.

They may look to the past for a teaching moment. But if anything, all sights point toward the future, one that — he admitted — will be difficult without Lurken, who set the NCAA’s single-season made free throws record with 280 after going 10-14 from the line against Michigan.

“Just because we played Michigan close this year doesn’t mean we’re going to win any games next year,” Starkey said. “Next year writes its own story and we’ll have new personnel. You don’t lose the single-season scoring leader in school history and not take a hit. I know people will say, ‘Hey, you did all this’ and that type of thing and expect the same type of results.”

Lurken couldn’t have settled with ending her career on a sour note, like the team’s MAC Tournament defeat to the University of Toledo. The disappointment from that game stung too much.

But nearly rallying from a 21-point halftime deficit to a Big 10 team in the postseason made it easier to accept that her career as a college basketball player was over.

“I’m happy that we went out the way we did today, especially in the second half. (I’m) really proud of my team and what we accomplished this season,” Lurken said. “I’ll never forget it. It was a great season and something I’m really proud to be a part of.”

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