Seniors lead way in win

Sean Joseph

Kent State’s senior guard DeAndre Haynes (23) and freshman forward Julian Sullinger (34) celebrate as Kent State takes the lead over Miami Saturday afternoon at the M.A.C. Center after trailing 17-3 in the first half. Kent State won 70-63. ALLIEY BENDE

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

After being pummeled by Miami 17-3 in the first 10 minutes of play, the Kent State men’s basketball team went into the second half to defend their honor and came out with a 70-63 victory.

The win kept the Flashes (21-7, 14-2 Mid-American Conference) in first place in the MAC and pushed the RedHawks (16-9, 12-4 MAC) back to No. 3.

Junior guard Omni Smith led all scorers with 21 points, hitting 4-of-6 from 3-point range. Three of those came in the first five minutes of the second half in a 16-2 Kent State run, which started in the first half and gave the Flashes their first lead with 15:10 to play.

“In my mind at that time, I was thinking that I just have to go out there and do what it takes to win,” Smith said.

But Smith could not have made the shot that put the Flashes up without a cross-court assist from Kent State’s all-time leader in assists, senior guard DeAndre Haynes, who had seven assists Saturday and set Smith up for every trey he made.

Haynes “is the best leader I’ve ever had here,” Kent State coach Jim Christian said. “He leads when things go well and when they don’t.

“And the beautiful thing about Omni is – as well as he played, he was playing for the other guys on the floor. And the goal today was to play for the seniors.”

On the day seniors and their parents were recognized at center court before the game, emotions ran high – and Christian said it caused the slow start.

“At that point we were just trying to play with energy,” Christian said. “We started too tense, and the guys off the bench really got us going.”

The Flashes’ starting lineup, which consisted of all four seniors and junior guard Armon Gates, made 4-of-21 field goal attempts collectively in the first half, resulting in 10 points. A key layup by freshman forward Julian Sullinger snapped the RedHawks’ 17-3 grip on the Flashes with 10:13 to play in the first half. Sullinger’s shot sparked a 10-3 Kent State run, and the Flashes were down 32-25 at the half.

Miami came into Saturday’s game with the No. 1 scoring defense in the MAC, which was ranked No. 18 nationally. Miami coach Charlie Coles said their game plan against Kent State was to keep them from penetrating the paint and make them shoot 30 3-pointers – a strategy they have successfully played out all season. And that’s what they did during the first half, limiting the Flashes to five baskets inside the arc. But Kent State improved its shooting from 29.6 percent in the first half to 62.5 percent in the second half and swayed the momentum their way.

“Kent State is just the best dribbling penetration team in our league – there isn’t much more to explain,” Coles said. “And when we go home there will be no doubt in our minds who the boss was – and it was Kent State.”

Senior guard Jay Youngblood scored the Flashes’ first field goal of the game, but made 2-of-8 field goals in the first half and could not get anything going. He scored 10 points in the second half, finishing with 15.

“We were down at half when we played there,” Youngblood said about Kent State’s 53-46 victory at Miami Jan. 24. “So at half we knew we could do it, and everyone just said we have to come together as a team, step up and man up.”

The RedHawks stayed consistent in the second half, shooting 50 percent in the first half and 49 percent in the second half. Their leading scorers, forward Tim Pollitz scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half and guard William Hatcher produced nine of his 17.

Miami didn’t just let Kent State run away with it though. A jumper by Hatcher pulled the RedHawks to 66-62 with 36 seconds to play. Their defense then trapped senior forward Kevin Warzynski on the RedHawks’ baseline and forced him to turn the ball over out of bounds. Miami guard Josh Hausfeld put up a shot from behind the arc that could have decreased Kent State’s lead to one, but he missed and Youngblood grabbed the rebound that put the game away.

“We got the ball to (Hausfeld), and he took the shot. I don’t question his shot, but maybe we could’ve done a couple things different,” Hatcher said. “We tried as hard as we could to get back in the game, but a couple offensive and defensive lapses pretty much gave it up.”

Kent State is in sole possession of first place in the MAC, leading Akron (20-7, 13-3 MAC) by one game. The two teams meet Saturday at the James A. Rhodes Arena in Akron for both teams’ last regular season game. But Akron plays at Buffalo (16-11, 6-9 MAC) Wednesday night, and Kent State plays its last home game against Ohio (16-9, 9-7 MAC) 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Contact men’s basketball reporter Sean Joseph at [email protected].