Unselfish, hard-nosed play propels Kent State to MAC Tournament title

Kent State senior forward Jimmy Hall hugs his mom after beating Akron 70-65 in the MAC Title Game at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Saturday, March 11, 2017. Hall was named to the All-MAC Tournament team.

Nick Buzzelli

When it was all over, after he tossed the ball upward in celebration and shared a short — yet triumphant — embrace with his teammates, Kent State senior Jimmy Hall navigated his way to the far end of the court, past a group of stunned Akron fans and toward Quicken Loans Arena’s four-foot high hockey boards that served as the divider separating the court from the stands.

At the same time, Hall’s mother — wearing a white T-shirt that had “Hall, J.R.” printed across the back — left her seat in the third row, rushed to the boards and held her son while she repeated, “You’re a man. God got you, stand tall.”

During that time, Kent State fans were screaming Hall’s name in excitement, chanting “MVP” and taking Snapchat videos of him and his mother. In that moment, though, none of that mattered.

What did, however, was that he was in the company of his mother on the Mid-American Conference’s largest stage.

It’s been an unlikely journey, one that’s taken him from the playgrounds of his native Brooklyn to a one-year stint at Long Island’s Hofstra University before finally landing at Kent State.

But now, because of a 98-point performance over the previous four games, Hall is a MAC champion.

“I can’t even describe it. It’s been a great journey, just blessed to be in this position. All my emotions, just went when I seen my mom, how much she cares for me, how much she comes out to every game and gives me pep talks from the scouting reports, her little scouting reports she be sending me,” Hall said, smiling during the postgame press conference. “I just wanted to thank her so much for having me and raising me and believing in me.”

Less than 24 hours after he hit a game-winning runner in the lane with four seconds remaining to propel the Flashes into the MAC championship game, sophomore guard Jaylin Walker recorded a season-high 30 points —19 of which came in the second half — and Hall chipped in 19 on a 9-12 mark from the floor, lifting Kent State (22-13) to a 70-65 win over rival Akron (26-8) Saturday and into the NCAA Tournament. 

“I actually feel way better than last night after hitting the game-winner. I just kind of humbled myself (after the Ohio win) because I knew we had one more left,” Walker said. “Words can’t explain how I’m feeling right now, man.”

Kent State began the contest on a 13-4 run and led for 36 of the game’s 40 minutes, shooting 53.1 percent from the field.

Despite trailing by as many as eight early in the second half, Akron took its largest lead of the contest — two points — on a Josh Williams crossover three pointer with nine minutes remaining.

However, the Flashes then used a 10-0 run over the next four minutes to go ahead by eight and were able to hold on to the lead courtesy of Walker’s 4-4 mark from the free-throw line over the final 43 second and secure the program’s sixth title in its 101-year history.

For senior walk-on Jon Fleming — a leader in the locker room — everything started to click following his team’s 66-56 loss to the Zips on March 3 in the regular season finale.

“Senior night we lost and Demetrius Shaw (a member of Kent State’s 2002 Elite Eight team) came in and told us that (the loss) was the best thing that could happen for us because we were hungry,” he said. “And I got to agree with that, man. It’s just been a great ride.”

While head coach Rob Senderoff admitted that the MAC Tournament’s story line could have been different if Central Michigan’s David DiLeo knocked down a buzzer-beating three at the end of regulation Monday night, he’s confident that his team — which has played four games in six nights — will be prepared when the NCAA Tournament’s first round starts in two days.

“I do know this, whoever we play, they’re going to get our best effort. These guys have played so hard over the last month and so together,” he said. “Whoever we face, we’ll respect them and obviously they’re going to be a high seed because that’s how it works. But we’ll be ready.”

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