Women’s team locks down bye with strong ‘D’

Josh Johnston

VIEW photos from the game.

Stephanie Gibson found the back door of the Akron women’s basketball team’s defense wide open Saturday afternoon, so naturally the sophomore guard walked in.

Gibson came out with five crucial points late in the game in Kent State’s 59-55 win over the Zips at the M.A.C. Center. With the win, the Flashes (19-9. 8-8 Mid-American Conference) clinched a first-round bye in the MAC Tournament this week.

Breaking down the game:

Players of the game…

Senior center Anna Kowalska (19 points, 9 rebounds): Akron’s frontcourt did little to stop Kowalska, whose 13 second-half points fueled Kent State’s comeback.

Sophomore guard Stephanie Gibson (12 points, 3 assists): In addition to her layups, Gibson drained a 3-pointer to tie the game at 50-50 with 5:31 left.

The game was over when…

Junior guard Rachel Bennett intercepted a midcourt pass to Akron sophomore forward Kara Murphy with 15 seconds left.

Stat of the game…

29: Akron’s 29 turnovers led to nearly half of Kent State’s total points.

“The win was good, but most important, we got the second seed,” said Gibson, who finished with 12 points. “We get the bye of the first round, so it’s always a plus.”

Gibson scored her first back door layup off a pass from sophomore guard Jamilah Humes with 7:08 left in the game. On Gibson’s drive, Akron junior guard Ayla Guzzardo picked up her fifth foul to leave the game. Gibson made the free throw to cut Akron’s former 10-point lead to just one point.

The Flashes ran the same play again minutes later to take the lead for good, 57-55. Kent State coach Bob Lindsay said the play works best late in the game when the opposing defense is worn down.

“We get that play two or three times a game,” Lindsay said. “(Defenses) don’t do what they’re supposed to do and they get caught on the backscreen, and they give up layups.”

Gibson’s two layups were among the few successful offensive possessions for Kent State. The Flashes shot under 30 percent (20-of-67) from the field, including 4-of-23 from 3-point range.

Senior center Anna Kowalska controlled the frontcourt for the 30 minutes she played. She hit 19 points and pulled down six of the Flashes’ 18 offensive rebounds.

Lindsay said Kent State’s shooting forced the team to rebound better.

“We shot the ball so poorly, we had to rebound the ball,” Lindsay said. “I mean, we couldn’t throw it in the ocean today, even with the offensive rebounds.”

Without an offensive presence in the game, the Flashes relied on pressure defense to keep Akron at bay.

“You’ve got to give credit to Kent,” Akron coach Jodi Kest said. “They knew that we had not been handling the press very well, and especially when (Guzzardo) was out of the game, they went after us.”

Kent State’s defense helped force Akron’s 29 turnovers, with the biggest one coming with 24 seconds left. With the Flashes playing zone defense, junior guard Rachel Bennett picked off Akron freshman guard Natasha Williams’ pass. Kest said she drew up the play expecting Kent State to guard man-to-man.

“(Kest) had her second-team point guard in there,” Lindsay said. “Her point guard had no idea we were in the zone, and she just threw it to us.

“Any time you can grind one of these kind of wins out, you’ve got to be happy.”

The Flashes’ win avenged a 64-62 loss earlier this season at Akron. With a first-round bye, Kent State will wait until 3 p.m. Friday to play the winner of Wednesday’s Northern Illinios-Buffalo game.

Contact sports reporter Josh Johnston at [email protected].