Walker’s game-winner sends Kent State to MAC title game

Kent State sophomore guard Jaylin Walker shoots a three pointer against Ohio during the semi-finals of the MAC Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Friday, March 10, 2017. Kent State won 68-66.

Nick Buzzelli

As Jimmy Hall prepared to inbound the basketball following a timeout with 1:59 remaining Friday night, he glanced over to a trio of rowdy Kent State fans situated three rows behind the media table and acknowledged their support with a head nod.

For the duration of the game, the students  who had a cardboard cutout of Hall’s headshot — echoed the redshirt senior’s name in an effort to overpower Ohio’s pep band.

When Hall hit a turnaround jumper midway through the first half to cut Kent State’s deficit to eight, they shouted “Way to go, 3-5.” And when he grabbed an offensive rebound and was subsequently fouled on the put back, they bellowed, “Eat it up, Jimmy.”

But after Ohio’s Jaaron Simmons tied the score at 66 by making 1-2 free throws with 10 seconds left, the tension inside Quicken Loans Arena increased for the Kent State faithful, rendering them silent for a brief moment.

However, after Jaylin Walker corralled Simmons’ rebound, drove the length of the floor and hit a clutch, double-pump layup off the glass to propel Kent State (21-13, 10-8 MAC) past Ohio University (20-11, 11-7 MAC), 68-66, and into the Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship game Saturday in Cleveland, the cheering returned, stronger than ever.

“I was just saying that we needed to get to the hole. My mindset was just getting to the hole, trying to create contact. At least if they were going to foul, I’d go to the free throw line,” Walker said, recalling the final play  his first postseason game-winner. “I can’t really explain it because I’ve never been. This is my first rodeo, my first journey to this, so I’m just trying to take it as far as we can.”

Hall paced Kent State with 22 points, 14 of which were scored in the second half, while point guard Kevin Zabo chipped in 15 off the bench on a 4-6 mark from beyond the arc.

Simmons led all scorers with 25 points on 10-20 shooting.

Holding a one point edge with 48 seconds left after OU’s Kenny Kaminski sank a three-pointer in front of his bench, Simmons drew a blocking foul on Zabo on the following possession. But he only converted his first attempt from the charity stripe, setting up Walker’s heroic layup.

The Bobcats had a last-ditch chance to hit a game-winning three, but Simmons was tightly guarded by Jalen Avery at the top of the key and was unable to get a shot off in time.  

“These type of games have been the type that we like; grind it out, tough, physical, hard‑fought games,” Coach Rob Senderoff said following the win. “And we’ve been making enough plays here over the last month and a half to put ourselves in this position.”

Freshman Mitch Peterson scored eight of Kent State’s first 12 points and, after being down by eight with 5:26 left in the first half, the Flashes used a 12-4 run to cut it to two at halftime.

Despite starting the game 1-6 from the field, Hall found his rhythm late when Ohio’s starting center, Jason Carter, got in foul trouble. As a result, OU had outmatched Doug Taylor guard Hall in the low post for a majority of the second half.

“… The worst part is that (shots) were rimming out (in the first half), so it was real frustrating,” said Hall, who posted his 21st double-double in 34 games this season. “But my teammates, during the timeouts, they kept motivating me, my coaches telling me that the shots are going to fall, just keep being aggressive and guarantee your spots, and it paid off in the second half.”

Since Akron knocked off Ball State in the first game of the semifinals, Kent State and the Zips will resume the Wagon Wheel Challenge Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the championship game.

The two teams last played each other in the postseason of the 2013 semifinals, with the Zips claiming a 62-59. Kent State last won the MAC Tournament in 2008, when Jim Christian was head coach.  

For Senderoff, having the region’s two local schools vie for the league’s only NCAA Tournament bid in a rivalry game is ultimately beneficial for basketball in Northeast Ohio.

“I know how many people are fans of one or the other school. I always say this when we play Akron, my next door neighbor is an Akron graduate and my across‑the‑street neighbors are Kent graduates … that’s the rivalry,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter who you play, but I know it’s great for this event. And for us, we’re just happy to be a part of it.”

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