I was a witness. With two seconds left against Akron Sunday night, Omni Smith gave one last desperate heave to will his team to victory. The hoop was 66 feet away; the ball traveled 65 and three quarters.
There I stood behind the student section, directly behind Smith as the ball flew the length of the court directly in line with the basket. But the shot came up just short. The team was mere inches away from another Mid-American Conference season title.
Kent State was not supposed to have this type of year – it was a year to restock and rebuild the program after eight years of a dynasty.
Yet “rebuilding” is not in Kent State’s vernacular.
With nine straight seasons of at least 20 wins, Kent State is more than just a basketball team. They are becoming an elite program, perhaps the nation’s best kept secret.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski may have put it best after his national powerhouse basketball team narrowly beat the Flashes Dec. 19.
“We were not playing a basketball team,” he said. “We were playing a basketball program and a culture that is accustomed to winning.”
And that program does not believe in rebuilding. For coach Jim Christian, it is more like retooling.
Christian’s coaching job has been remarkable this season, as he has morphed a young and inexperienced squad into an immediate contender.
Sunday night’s loss to rival Akron wasn’t the result of poor effort. The Flashes were all over the floor, literally, diving for every ball. They scratched, clawed and fought, but in the end it just wasn’t enough to match the experience that Lebron’s high school buddies have. Like other times this season, the inexperience of the Flashes caused them to come up inches short.
Yet, it doesn’t mean they won’t get it. Not if Christian and his seniors, Armon Gates and Smith, have anything to say about it.
Kent State expects to win every year. They rarely make excuses for a loss, and they simply demand to win the next time. It’s what separates the Flashes from other teams.
It is what makes them an elite program.
With the 2007 First Energy MAC Tournament now upon us, the Flashes aren’t just looking for growth from their young players; they are looking to win it all once again, no matter who is on the court.
So as the buzzer ticks down in the MAC Tournament, I’ll be looking for the ball to be in Smith’s hands once again. The inches missed on Sunday’s final shot may have been miles gained for a young, hungry Flashes squad.
Contact assistant sports editor Jonas Fortune at [email protected]