Flashes to enjoy Christmas on two-game win streak

Nick Shook

The Christmas season just became much more enjoyable for Kent State basketball.

After suffering three consecutive losses, the Flashes (7-5) won their second game in three days on Saturday night, 73-69 over visiting Arkansas State (6-5) in front of 2,325 at the M.A.C. Center in Kent, Ohio.

In the first battle between the two schools during the holiday season, two Kent State seniors led the team statistically, but it was a freshman who proved to be the difference.

Guard Kellon Thomas scored 14 points and made two key shots in the final five minutes of regulation to lift the Flashes to a hard-fought victory.

“I feel like I was just playing within the offense, just doing what the team needed,” Thomas said.

With Kent State leading by just one, the freshman from Indianapolis, Ind., made a 3-pointer with 5:25 left to play to help the Flashes hold on to their slim lead.

“[Thomas] stepped up,” Flashes head coach Rob Senderoff said. “We needed him to. I didn’t expect to play Kellon necessarily the whole end of the game. I was planning on putting [sophomore guard] Kris Brewer back in, but Kellon played so well that I kept him out there, and he made a number of big plays.”

Thomas’ made his final three-pointer in front of a section filled with members of his family who made the trip to Kent to see him play.

“It felt good,” Thomas said. “It always feels good playing in front of your family, but like I said I just try to do whatever the team needs, come in and bring energy and just try to get a win.”

Senior guard Randal Holt rebounded from two less-than-stellar performances to lead the Flashes with 19 points and four rebounds.

Holt, who is typically one of Kent State’s leading scorers, managed just eight points (three of 14 shooting) in a blowout victory over St. Francis (Pa.) on Thursday night, and seven points (2 of 17) in a close loss at Xavier on Dec. 9.

His below average play prompted him to put in extra work between games this week.

“I came in last night and got some shots up,” Holt said. “I hadn’t been shooting the ball like I should these past couple games so I just came in last night, tried to get some shots up, get my confidence back and just came out here and played confident.”

Senior Chris Evans finished with 16 points and six rebounds, but his last two points were the most important of the night for Kent State.

Leading 71-69 with 38 seconds left in regulation, the Flashes successfully chewed up 32 seconds by passing the ball repeatedly between aggressive defenders before Evans was fouled with 6.1 seconds left to play.

The 6-foot-8 forward bent over at the foul line, stood straight and calmly sank both free throws to put the game out of reach for the Red Wolves.

“That first free throw hit every part of the rim,” Senderoff said. “But Chris Evans as a senior, when we’ve needed him, he’s made them.”

Kent State reversed another early slow start by going on a 17-2 run in a 5:34 span to take a 21-16 lead over the Red Wolves.

When asked about the cause of repeated sluggish beginnings at home, Holt didn’t blame it on excitement.

“I don’t think it’s nerves,” Holt. “We knew Arkansas State is a pretty good team and they weren’t gonna quit. We just had to answer their run, they answered our runs and we just so happened to pull it out at the end with good defensive stops, rebounds and execution on the offensive end.”

Junior forward Mark Henniger received extended playing time in the absence of Melvin Tabb, who tried to tough out an illness, but was visibly sick during the game. Henniger took advantage of the opportunity by scoring seven points and grabbing seven rebounds in 30 minutes of action.

“Mark was great,” Senderoff said. “Melvin was sick and he really looked it when you watched him play. I didn’t know if he was going to play tonight…He struggled because he was sick. He hadn’t eaten in two days and didn’t go through walkthrough and didn’t go through a lot of the pregame, so we needed Mark and Mark came through for us.”

What was most impressive about Henniger’s play was his defensive match up. Arkansas State’s Kendrick Washington, a 6-foot-7, 274-pound forward, held a 59-pound advantage over the 6-foot-9 Henniger.

But it was familiar territory for Henniger.

“I’ve had a lot of cases of that so far in the season, being outweighed by a lot, but I just try to use my strengths against them,” Henniger said. “If they’re bigger than me I try to use my strengths against them, try to get as low as I can, push them out [and] use my length.”

Kent State will take a four-day break to allow players to return home for Christmas, and with two wins included in their packed bags, they weren’t shy about the importance of the victories.

“It feels a lot better, we’ll be able to enjoy this break a lot more,” Henniger said. “[The wins will] also give us some momentum coming back too.”

The Flashes will host Fairmont State on Dec. 30. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the M.A.C. Center.

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected].