Flashes stay alive in MAC East race

Nick Shook

In a game and a season full of highs and lows, Kent State (19-6, 9-3 MAC) found a way to win another close game when they needed it most Tuesday night.

Kent State trailed by four late in the second half after a 13-0 run by Buffalo. The Flashes’ offense had become stagnant, and the team’s hopes of winning its third-consecutive Mid-American Conference East Division title seemed to disappear with each scoreless possession.

However, Flashes’ senior guard Michael Porrini was not ready to give up on those hopes.

“I did not want to lose,” Porrini said. “I kept telling the team, ‘we are not losing at home. Blaze (Justin Greene), this is our senior year. We’re not losing at home. Not now, not the rest of the season. We’re here to get a three-peat.’”

Porrini made sure his team would fall no further behind on the following possession by making a 3-pointer to cut the Bulls lead to 61-60. After a layup by Buffalo’s Mitchell Watt, Flashes’ guard Randal Holt found Porrini open near the top of the three-point arc, and Porrini made another 3-pointer to tie the game at 63-63.

“I just was competing,” Porrini said. “I was in a groove.”

A layup by senior forward Justin Greene followed on the next possession, and Kent State would never trail again as the Flashes earned a crucial 76-71 victory over Buffalo. The victory, Kent State’s seventh in a row, moved the Flashes into a tie for second place in the MAC East with Buffalo (16-7, 9-3 MAC) and just a game behind Akron.

“A loss at home would knock us out of competing for first place,” Porrini said. “We just wanted to dig deep, our coaches challenged us at half time, and we came out and responded.”

Kent State had trouble from the start of the game defensively versus Buffalo’s Zach Filzen. The senior guard scored 17 points in the first half, including six of the Bulls’ final 10 points of the half. Led by Filzen, Buffalo went on a 10-2 run in the last 4:26 of the first half to enter halftime with a 39-31 lead over the Flashes.

“He’s a great, great shooter and you can’t lose him,” Flashes’ coach Rob Senderoff said. “He got a lot of clean looks in the first half.”

The second half was not nearly as easy for Filzen. Kent State increased defensive pressure on the guard and limited him to just three points.

“[Filzen] shot the ball well in the first half, got a little anxious in the second half and it might have thrown him off his rhythm,” Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon said.

“In the second half, [Filzen] only made one basket,” Senderoff said. “He only took four shots in the second half, and I think the reason was we were there on every catch.”

As the Flashes limited Filzen and the rest of the Bulls, their offense began to find its rhythm. After a halftime scolding from Senderoff, Kent State went on a 21-7 run to open the second half.

“[Senderoff] let us know that what we were doing was unacceptable, especially with the way we closed out the first half,” Greene said. “We knew if we didn’t make a run in the first four minutes, they could blow the game wide open. We just wanted to come out and match their intensity.”

It was during the run that one play turned the momentum in favor of the Flashes.

As junior guard Eric Gaines’ 3-pointer traveled through the air, a foul was called on Buffalo’s Titus Robinson. The shot attempt fell through the rim, and Gaines made the following free throw attempt for a four point play.

“That’s what he does,” Greene said. “He comes in and gives us energy. That was huge.”

“Eric was great,” Senderoff said. “He didn’t play a ton of minutes. It seemed like he played more, because when he was in there, I thought he changed the game. He just completely changed the energy for our team.”

One final shot was necessary to secure the victory for Kent State in the final minutes of the game. Leading 70-65, Flashes’ guard Carlton Guyton dribbled himself into an isolation versus a Buffalo defender.

Guyton dribbled through his legs twice, stepped back, and made a long-distance 3-pointer to put the Flashes ahead by eight with 1:27 remaining in the game.

“That’s players making plays,” Senderoff said. “We tried to milk the clock to shorten the game. I thought we’d drive and get fouled. Scootie (Guyton) was deep, but you know what, he’s got a lot of confidence.”

Facing one of the tallest front courts in the conference, Kent State performed well in the rebounding category. The Flashes were out-rebounded, 38-36, but Senderoff was pleased with his team’s effort.

“We knew that we had to try to rebound with them,” Senderoff said. “They’re the best rebounding team in the league and one of the best in the country.”

“They’re huge,” Greene said. “Especially Watt and McCrea. We’ve got some guys that can battle too. I feel like I’m one of the best bigs in the league as well as one of the best players, and you know I’m always going to be up for the challenge.”

Kent State will continue its home stand Saturday against the College of Charleston. Game time is set for 6 p.m.

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected]. or @NickShookDKS.