Halftime pep talk credited with sparking late-season turnaround

Nick Buzzelli

For head coach Rob Senderoff, halftime of Kent State’s game against Miami (OH) on Feb. 14 was the turning point.

Trailing by five to a team that had only won three Mid-American Conference contests up to that point, senior walk-on Jon Fleming gave his teammates an effective pep talk during the 15-minute halftime break that Senderoff credited with altering the trajectory of the season.

Although Senderoff wasn’t able to specify exactly what Fleming iterated during halftime of the eventual 76-72 win, citing the fact that “a lot of things are sometimes said in the locker room that stay in the locker room,” whatever it was sparked four straight wins ‒ including three over the MAC’s top teams.

“Jon Fleming at halftime, in my opinion, what he said to our guys really changed how they came out in the next game and from that point forward, minus the first half of this game,” Senderoff said after Kent State knocked off Ohio by three Saturday night. ” “… That to me was a turning point.”

Since then, the Flashes have held opponents to 68.8 points per game, nearly four below the season average and the team limited the amount of turnovers they commit en route to 9-7 mark in league play.

Though taking it one game at a time has been a point of emphasis for the coaching staff since Kent State dropped four straight league games in early January, sophomore point guard Jalen Avery said the team realized it was gaining momentum at just the right time prior to facing Akron on Feb. 17.

“We came together right before the Akron game and were saying, ‘This could be the start of a wonderful journey and a wonderful story,’” said Avery, who extended his streak without a turnover to eight straight games against Ohio.  ” … When we come together as a team and we just want to win and put the effort in, I feel like we could win against anybody.”

With two games remaining, Kent State is tied for third with Buffalo in the MAC’s East Division standings, one game behind Ohio for second. 

Despite the fact that Akron already clinched the conference’s regular season title, guaranteeing itself a bid to the NIT if it fails to win the league tournament, Friday’s finale with the Zips could have major implications in terms of seeding heading into postseason play. 

While the top four seeds based on winning percentage, regardless of division, receive an automatic first round bye, the other eight must play on campus for the right to qualify for the quarterfinals, held at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

Even though Kent State is currently in position to secure a first round bye, Senderoff knows that nothing is a guarantee in the MAC.

“We still have two more games and, listen, we could lose both of them and lose in the first round of the tournament,” he said. “I know well enough how this league is. You got to play well every night to have a chance to win.”

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