Call it clutch; they’re back

Matt Goul

Experience grows with close win late in the season

Jay Youngblood takes a shot during the second half of Saturday night’s game. Youngblood had 10 points and 10 rebounds during the Flashes’ 73-68 win over Akron.

Credit: Matt Goul

Now that Miami lost to Bowling Green, the Mid-American Conference’s East Division race has come full circle.

Akron was only a game back of the division lead before its loss to Kent State Saturday. The Zips would be tied for the lead had they won. Instead, the Flashes pulled within a game and a chance to tie the RedHawks with their game on Wednesday.

It was all made possible by a team that all of a sudden grew savvy in a close game.

“Even at the timeouts when we were down by four, they didn’t rattle,” Kent State coach Jim Christian said. “That’s something I’m impressed with this team. They’ve improved with that area. We would have rattled earlier and not made the right play or fouled on the other end.”

Coming up short with losses in the last two home games could have lingered as a bugaboo to the coach. Akron had all the momentum it needed with a 7-0 run to take the 68-64 lead with about two minutes left. Freshman Bubba Walther tied the score on a 3-pointer, followed by back-to-back trips to the free-throw line. Junior point guard DeAndre Haynes picked up his fourth to set up the second set of free throws with 2:06 left.

The captain did not lose his cool. Neither did his teammates who are supposed to be less experienced. They are not any more.

“You don’t know what it takes to win big games until you play in the them,” Christian said.

“We have a lot of guys who it’s new to,” Christian said. “The roles have changed within this team. That’s really been the difference.”

He said that has come with the last two wins, whether it’s been a blowout against a last-place team or nailbiter against a rival.

The role that has started to mold itself is junior forward Jay Youngblood’s.

Coming in as a junior college transfer, his transition showed with spurts of sensation followed by slumps of silence. He’s become more assertive, using his athletic ability to drive to the basket. It gets him to the free-throw line. And when he pulls the mid-air pump fake, he can turn it into a three-point opportunity — just as he did while driving the baseline to start Kent State’s game-ending 9-0 run.

“It’s just a move I usually do,” Youngblood said. “I saw Cutley had his man sealed, so I just did it.”

Christian called it a fake spin before being asked how much he likes it.

“No, no, Coach doesn’t like that,” Christian said. “I liked it tonight, but I’ve seen that ball kicked into the cheerleaders far too many times to like that move.”

Moves like that have helped the Flashes win eight of their last 12 games. They could come in as a helpful option Wednesday at Miami.

Last time, when Kent State beat Miami by 19 at the M.A.C. Center, it got the Flashes back into first place. The RedHawks won eight of their next nine in retaking first. Their lead was three games before dropping two straight.

“It’s a crazy year in the league,” Christian said. “We could be first; we could be fifth.”

Contact men’s basketball reporter Matt Goul at [email protected].