Four seniors end careers in emotional loss to Pitt

Kali Price

Senior guard Jay Youngblood goes up for a layup during the first half of the NCAA Division I Men’s Tournament game Friday against Pittsburgh. MELISSA GAUG | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Seniors Jay Youngblood and DeAndre Haynes and Kent State coach Jim Christian walked into the post-game press conference with puffy, red, teary eyes.

All Haynes could say was how badly the loss and the end of his Kent State career hurt him.

Youngblood was unable to complete a single sentence.

It was the last time the three would sit together at a post-game press conference ever again.

The Kent State men’s basketball team fell 79-64 to Pittsburgh in the first round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Tournament Friday night at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich.

“I’m proud of our kids,” Christian said. “They kept fighting all the way through to the end.”

Despite falling behind early, and the Panthers leading by as much as 25 points in the second half, the Flashes never gave up and fought through to the end.

“The shots they were hitting, everything they was putting up, it was falling in,” Haynes said. “We weren’t communicating that well in the beginning of the game. We came out to win. We kept fighting till the end. That’s one thing about Kent State, we never give up.”

Pitt shot for 67.4 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent from outside the perimeter, while Kent State shot 39 percent of field goals and 40.9 percent of 3-pointers.

“We shot the ball poorly, they shot the ball extremely well,” Christian said. “At the same time, I’m proud of our kids. I give Pittsburgh a lot of credit.”

Despite the loss, the Flashes still made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002 and overcame a 6-5 start to win the regular-season Mid-American Conference title and the MAC Championship Tournament.

The game was hard from the beginning for the Flashes. The Panthers took an early lead and never let up. Their smallest lead was by one point – and that was only one minute and 32 seconds into the game.

But the Flashes were obviously unable to get into the game early and ended the first half down 40-27.

Although the Flashes were incapable of making it as far as they did in 2002, anyone associated with Kent State should be proud of this team and especially proud of Youngblood, Haynes and their fellow seniors Nate Gerwig and Kevin Warzynski.

The four have fought through tough injuries, losing essential teammates, poor season endings and slumps to emerge as four of the best leaders and players Kent State has ever had.

“The main thing they bring to the team is leadership,” Christian said. “The way they coached things this year, their attitude, their determination. The best part of having a lot of young guys with those guys is they get to see on a daily basis the standard that’s been set here and what they hold each other accountable for, and that has to rub off on the other players. Those guys are going to leave a great legacy here. Their senior year’s completed, but their leadership will be hard to replace.”

The 2002 Elite Eight squad was immortalized in Kent State basketball history, but it’s time for Youngblood, Haynes, Warzynski and Gerwig to be written in the history books as the best leaders the program has ever had.

“I’m extremely proud of them,” Christian said. “What these guys were able to accomplish together is something special. We had an unbelievable run in 2002 going to the Elite Eight. And that was a special, special group. They were special kids. But probably the next paragraph down, you have to bring up this team and what they were able to do.” They’ve had an extraordinary season. What they were able to overcome and what they were able to accomplish to get to this point. I just couldn’t be prouder of them.”

The four have set a new standard for Kent State basketball. They’ve broken records and earned the highest of Mid-American Conference honors.

Along with the 2002 senior class – Demetric Shaw, Andrew Mitchell, Trevor Huffman and Eric Thomas – whose numbers are retired and hang over the court of the M.A.C. Center, Warzynski, Youngblood, Gerwig and Haynes’ numbers deserve retiring and hung next to Shaw, Mitchell, Huffman and Thomas’.

As the last few minutes of the second half went down, I knew that this was it. I knew that I’d be saying goodbye to four seniors who I’ve enjoyed writing about and will keep in my heart for years to come.

“It’s tough just sitting there on the floor and watching the seconds run down, watching the end of my career at Kent State,” Haynes said with tears in his eyes. “It was just hurting, just knowing this is it for me at Kent State and knowing what we built at Kent State. It’s never going to be over though, we’re always going to be family. There’s not much I can say about it, it just hurts so bad.”

Warzynski said he couldn’t be happier to get as far as the team did and the family that they formed.

“It’s tough,” he said about ending his years at Kent State. “It’s never easy when you end a career like this at any place. Especially a place like this and the guys are so special to me. We set out at the beginning and did what we wanted to do. We won the MAC Tournament, we won the regular season crown. We gave it all we had and we give credit to them.”

Junior guard Armon Gates said he’s both happy and upset because he said he knows the team will be even better next year.

“We tried our best,” he said. “We tried to leave everything out there. That’s what hurts. I left a mark right here. To get that NCAA experience, it’s just so amazing. (The other players now have the experience) in their head and in their stomach, like in their gut. We’re going to do it again, that’s the good thing about it. I’m having a high and low moment right now. When I think about it, I’m going to be real excited to be a senior.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that with Gates, junior guard Omni Smith and sophomore forward Mike Scott leading the team next season that the team will be back to the NCAA Tournament and it will make it even farther than this season.

And as the team plays next season, the memory of the legacy that Warzynski, Haynes, Gerwig and Youngblood leave will be forever in the minds and hearts of the players, coaches, administration and fans.

As for Christian, he said he will remember the four seniors forever:

“I just said goodbye to four kids that for the rest of my life will be in my heart.”

Contact sports editor Kali Price at [email protected].