Rivalry Renewed: Flashes look for measure of redemption against Akron

Senior guard Randal Holt drives the ball to the hoop, running around Akron’s Alex Abreu and Quincy Diggs. Holt scored a total of 27 points in an 84-75 loss to the Zips on Jan. 21, 2012. Photo by Philip Botta.

Tim Dorst

Friday’s men’s basketball game between Kent State and Akron will not have a major impact on the Mid-American Conference standings or on the seedings for the MAC Tournament. The Flashes (18-12, 8-7 MAC) already secured the No. 4 seed and a two-round bye with their win over Bowling Green on Tuesday, while the Zips (24-5, 14-1 MAC) clinched the MAC regular season championship and the No. 1 seed in a win over Miami.

But for the players and coaches on both teams, the lack of standings implications will not cause a lack of spirit and fierce competition when Kent State travels to Akron for another showdown with the rival Zips at 7 p.m. Friday at James A. Rhodes Arena.

After a rough start to the season and a number of close losses, the Flashes appear to have found their stride as the regular season draws to a close. Their win over the Falcons Tuesday night was their fourth straight victory and sixth out of their last seven, a significant stretch for a team that came into this season with seven new players on the roster.

Senior guard Randal Holt acknowledges the improvements the Flashes have made in only a matter of months.

“It’s just big for us, especially going into the tournament playing our best ball right now,” Holt said. “I feel like we’re playing great offensively, we’re improving much on defense and we’re maturing as a team and coming together.”

Kent State will play its first MAC Tournament game Thursday, but the team faces one last challenge before that in the form of the Zips, who have had a season like very few other teams in the country. Akron’s 19-game winning streak, the longest in the nation at the time, snapped on March 2, but the Zips officially captured the regular season conference title outright Tuesday.

Brief History of the Rivalry

  • First game played in 1915-16 season
  • Kent State leads all-time series 69-67
  • Akron has won last five games in series
  • Last meeting: Jan. 19 — Zips won 71-67
  • Last time Kent State beat Akron: March 4, 2011
  • -Tim Dorst

The Zips have won the last five installments of the rivalry, most recently edging out the Flashes 71-67 on Jan. 19 in the M.A.C. Center. Head coach Rob Senderoff said the Flashes will need to be at the absolute top of their game to have a chance at beating the best team in the conference.

“We’re going to have to play sharper,” Senderoff said. “We probably have to play a little better than normal, and [the Zips] probably have to play a little worse than normal for us to have a chance. I’ll be proud of our guys as long as we compete as hard as we can, and we’ll see where it goes.”

The Flashes aren’t any less motivated to win, despite the tournament seeds being set in stone, and Holt said a win against the Zips would not only end the team’s recent slide against Akron but would also make the team’s confidence skyrocket.

“We can go into the tournament knowing that nobody in the league can beat us when we come to play,” Holt said. “That’s going to be great, especially after us losing to Akron the last few times we’ve played them. We really want to go in there and bring this home.”

This will be the last regular season Kent State-Akron game for Holt and senior forward Chris Evans, although the two teams could potentially meet again in this year’s tournament. Evans, the Flashes’ leading scorer this season, said the team is focused on closing its year out on a good note.

“Getting this win at Akron would be a huge motivator for us,” Evans said. “So we definitely want to get this win, build on it and move forward from there.”

Adding to the challenge for the Flashes is Akron’s spotless record at Rhodes Arena. The Zips are a perfect 15-0 at home this season and have not lost a home game since Feb. 29, 2012. Kent State comes into this game with an even 6-6 road record.

What: Kent State at Akron

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: James A. Rhodes Arena

Broadcast information: ESPN2/WatchESPN.com (Mike Crispino and Tim McCormick); 640 WHLO-AM/Golden Flashes iHeartRadio (Ty Linder)

The game: Akron is among the top mid-major programs in the nation and recently had its nation’s-best 19-game winning streak snapped in a double-digit loss at Buffalo Saturday. The Zips have already wrapped up the regular season conference title and the top seed in the MAC Tournament, but a perfect home record is on the line. Zeke Marshall leads the Zips with 12.9 points per game, and he and forward Demetrius Treadwell both rank among the top 10 rebounders in the conference. Kent State has won four straight and five of its last six after an up-and-down majority of the regular season. Senior forward Chris Evans leads Kent State with 16.8 points per game and 7.7 rebounds per game. Akron defeated Kent State 71-67 at the M.A.C. Center in Kent on Jan. 19, and the Zips have won the last five meetings.

-Nick Shook

The significance of this game is not lost on the Zips either. Akron head coach Keith Dambrot said he realizes how close the competition in the MAC is and sees the Flashes as legitimate challengers to his team. When the game tips off in front of a sold-out crowd, Dambrot said the two teams and the players will compete as if it were a MAC Championship game.

“Our guys are not going to give up, and I know their guys are going to play,” Dambrot said. “It’ll be a fun game for the fans, but both teams will try to kick the other’s behinds. I promise you that.”

During the last meeting on Jan. 19, the Flashes held a 36-26 first half lead over the Zips before Akron stormed back in the second half and came away with the four-point victory. The Zips made the key plays down the stretch, including back-to-back 3-pointers by guards Alex Abreu and Brian Walsh that put them in the lead late in the game.

That, Senderoff said, is what sets them apart from most other teams in the MAC.

“That’s why they are 14-1 in the conference,” Senderoff said. “They’ve made those plays when they needed to, against us, against Ohio, against Buffalo the first time they played them. You could go on and on. That’s what really good teams do.”

While it might be easy to get intimidated by Akron’s track record this season, Senderoff said that will not keep the Flashes from coming into the game with confidence and playing hard for the final 40 minutes of the regular season.

“Our kids aren’t going to go in there thinking we can’t beat those guys,” Senderoff said. “We could play the Lakers, and our kids would think they’re going to win. That’s just how our kids are. They’re going to come to play. As long as we compete, play together and scratch and claw, we’ll go out there and play as hard as we can.”

Contact Tim Dorst at [email protected].