Wild ending and game-winning shot lifts Kent State over Akron

Richie Mulhall

Many people doubted that Kent State would be able to pull off an upset victory over the East Division leader Akron Saturday night – even at home – because Akron had a size and record advantage against the Flashes.

But even longtime Akron head coach Keith Dambrot said that on any given night, a struggling team has the opportunity to win.

“I thought it was going to be a close game,” Dambrot said of his expectations of the game. “Just because [Kent State is] 2-5 all of the sudden they’re not worth a damn and we’re great? It doesn’t matter who we play, they’re all gonna be close.”

After the scrappy contest stayed close for all twenty minutes and a miracle shot sealed the deal for the Flashes, an old adage was proven true: in a rivalry game, anything can happen. On the wings of Darren Goodson’s last-second desperation three, the Flashes beat the Zips 60-57.

The Flashes were hot in the second half of the game, but they actually got off to yet another slow start in the first half, shooting a mere 3-11 from the field and missing seven of the team’s eight attempted three-pointers.

The first half between these bitter rivals featured a lot of physical, back-and-forth action. It was not the most technically sound basketball game in the first half, as both teams missed a number of free throws and did not score a lot of points, but both teams scrambled for the ball and fought for every possession as if their lives depended on one thing: bragging rights.

After a timeout at 11:49 to go in the half, Akron led 13-6. Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff gathered his team to the bench trying to talk them down.

His message was simple: Stay calm. Stay relaxed. Stay under control.

“I probably don’t look like the calmest guy in the world, but I was just trying to tell them that it’s a great atmosphere and to have fun, play and compete,” Senderoff said.

After the timeout, the tables were turned on Akron. Just as the Zips were going cold, the Flashes were getting hot.

Redshirt sophomore guard K.K. Simmons came off the bench and scored an easy, wide-open layup. Soon after Simmons’ contribution, a wide-open dunk from sophomore forward Khaliq Spicer brought the Flashes to within five and Kent State fans to their feet.

Probably the biggest moment of the first half was when junior guard Kris Brewer stole the ball, drove it down the court and swung the ball out to junior guard Devareaux Manley, who drained a long shot from the corner for three.

The M.A.C. Center exploded with excitement. Now the Flashes were within two points of the lead.

Akron answered right back, though, after Kwan Cheatham, Jr. nailed a three-pointer of his own to take back the five-point advantage.

Henniger hit back-to-back layups later on in the half to put the Flashes only one point back. Shortly after Henniger’s easy baskets at the 3:44 mark, Kent State got the basketball back, and Brewer drove through the lane untouched for an effortless layup – 21-20 Kent State

The M.A.C. Center erupted in a thunderous ovation. It was the first Kent State lead of the night.

Kent State jumped out to a 26-22 advantage and took the lead into the locker room for a brief intermission.

Although the Flashes only shot 38.7 percent from the field in the first half, they forced 9 turnovers, which kept Kent State in the game against an Akron team who shot a better 42.1 percent from the field.

By the conclusion of the game, Kent State forced 18 turnovers, recorded 18 steals and scored 16 points off turnovers.

“For us to beat them, we had to create turnovers,” Senderoff said. “They have a lot of size and we play small, so for us to be effective against them, we have to turn them over, and tonight we did a good job of that.”

After the break, the back-and-forth action Kent State and Akron fans saw in the first half soon became an afterthought. The second half of regulation saw a total of four lead changes and seven tied scores.

As fans, coaches and players on each side sat on the edges of their seats, Kent State and Akron gave the near-capacity crowd inside the M.A.C. Center an intense rivalry game everyone wanted to see.

The Zips began to surge in the second half and reclaimed the lead 39-37. Moments after the lead change, Goodson tied the game again with a two-point jumper, and then Henniger stole the ball and dumped to Thomas for a contested layup to reclaim the lead.

The rest of the game see-sawed back and forth, with the lead teetering to and fro as the game rode on each shot, and each shot gave one rival a slight edge over the other.

At one point the Flashes regained their five-point lead over Akron with a 49-44 advantage on the scoreboard, but once again the resilient Zips clawed right back. Forward Nick Harney of Akron forced a Kent State timeout with just under four minutes left to play when he sank a three-pointer to narrow the deficit to two.

Kent State called a timeout and in the huddle, Brewer rallied his team around the idea of hope.

“I was just telling everybody, ‘Keep your heads up, it’s just four minutes, four, that’s all we need,’” Brewer said. “My teammates and coaches just fed off that, and I got everybody hyped and believing in each other.”

The game remained close until the waning moments of the second half.

With the score tied at 57 and only 30 seconds left on the clock, Kris Brewer dribbled to the top of the key and waited for the final shot. He couldn’t find the space to drive, so he found Darren Goodson, who sank the shot that sealed the game for the Flashes and cemented his name into the annals of Kent State history.

After a poor shooting effort in the first half, the Flashes turned things around in the second half and shot 52.2 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc.

Kent State also outscored its larger opponent in the paint 36-30, unexpected for a team so used to shooting it from long-range.

“We were just driving hard, every guard drove to the basket extremely hard, and we just found an open man,” Brewer said.

One player whose contribution did not necessarily show up on the box score was junior guard Kellon Thomas.

“I thought Kellon [Thomas] in particular, his aggressiveness off the dribble loosened the team up and I thought it was really important,” Senderoff said.

Kent State’s triumphant win over Akron was the team’s first win since Jan. 15 against Northern Illinois.

Goodson and Brewer both said Saturday night’s victory is the “spark” that they hope to be the turning point that will keep their season alive.

Goodson and Brewer’s thoughts resonated with Senderoff, who said February is now the beginning of a brand season and an all new Kent State men’s basketball team.

“We wiped the slate clean starting in February, we took a new team picture, we did everything,” Senderoff. “I don’t care what our record says, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re now 1-0.”

The Flashes hope to continue to roll and move to “2-0” – technically 13-8 – next week as they travel to Central Mount Pleasant, Mich. to take on the Central Michigan Chippewas Wednesday, Feb. 5.

Contact Richie Mulhall at [email protected].