Flashes hope to erase disappointing season with strong MAC Tournament

Kent State forward Justin Greene passes the ball past his defender in a game against Buffalo at the MAC Center Tuesday, Feb. 14. The Flashes defeated the Bulls 76-71 in a key Eastern Division game. Photo by Monica Maschak.

Kent State forward Justin Greene passes the ball past his defender in a game against Buffalo at the MAC Center Tuesday, Feb. 14. The Flashes defeated the Bulls 76-71 in a key Eastern Division game. Photo by Monica Maschak.

Nick Shook

Kent State entered the 2011-12 season with big expectations.

The Flashes won two consecutive Mid-American Conference East Division titles and appeared in the MAC Tournament championship game in 2011, and lost only one player to graduation.

Fans and players alike expected to win a third regular season championship, a MAC Tournament title and an NCAA Tournament appearance.

But Kent State finished the regular season in fourth place in the East and lost to rival Akron twice, including a 61-55 loss in its last game of the season. Akron’s win gave it its first regular season championship.

It was the end of a disappointing season.

But everything could change this week, if the Flashes win three straight games, including a possible one against Akron on Friday. With three victories, Kent State will win the MAC Championship and earn a trip to what is often called the “Big Dance” — the NCAA Tournament.

“People always remember where you finish,” junior forward Chris Evans said. “We just want to capitalize and win the MAC Championship and drive some of that disappointment out.”

A fourth-seeded Kent State team may be the most dangerous in the 2012 MAC Tournament.

The Flashes posted impressive home victories over two of the conference’s best teams in Ohio and Buffalo, and showed that they have the ability to compete with Akron.

“We didn’t get the three-peat that we expected to get,” Evans said. “We’re definitely the hungriest team in the MAC right now.”

Kent State’s previous tournament experience could also make a difference this weekend.

Seniors Michael Porrini, Justin Greene, Carlton Guyton and Justin Manns lead the Flashes into the tournament. The senior class fell to Akron in last season’s MAC Tournament final, but made an impressive run through the following National Invitational Tournament, winning two road games on opposite coasts of the United States before falling to Colorado in the quarterfinals.

Evans, a transfer from Wabash Valley Community College, has had postseason play on his mind since he made the decision to go to Kent State.

“That’s why I came to Kent,” Evans said. “This is definitely something I want to do that I’ve never done in my life. It’s an opportunity to make a run.”

The Flashes enter the MAC Tournament with a bit of anger after losing their final regular season game at home to Akron, Kent State’s third consecutive loss to the Zips, dating back to the 2011 MAC Tournament final. Kent State has the opportunity to exact revenge on Akron in the semifinal game Friday.

“We’re down 0-3 to them,” Evans said. “But if we play them again, it’s our chance to redeem ourselves and show everybody we’re for real.”

“I really want to get that bad taste out of my mouth,” Greene said.

But before the Flashes can worry about Akron, they first must win tonight versus either Western Michigan or Northern Illinois.

“Our mindset isn’t on Akron,” Greene said. “It’s on our opponent Thursday. That’s what we’re worried about. It’s real important we don’t overlook those teams.”

The Flashes defeated Western Michigan 78-73, in overtime Feb. 4, and routed Northern Illinois 90-56. But the Huskies upset Eastern Michigan in the first round of the tournament and will look to do the same Wednesday night against Western Michigan. (Cut to just the winner whenever the game goes final)

“Take it one day at a time,” Evans said. “We don’t want to jump into Friday.”

The Flashes’ underclassmen are focused on winning a tournament title, not only for their own personal satisfaction, but also to send the senior class out with a trophy and memories of success.

“(We’re) doing it for the seniors,” Evans said. “It’s their last time to make it to the NCAA tournament. I really want to get that for the seniors. I want to cap off their senior season by making it to the NCAA Tournament.”

“If we go out and play like we can play for 40 minutes, nobody will be able to beat us,” Evans said.

Kent State plays (Western Michigan/Northern Illinois) Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Game time is set for 7 p.m. SportsTime Ohio will broadcast the game live.

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected].