Toledo — Kent State spells “momentum” d-e-f-e-n-s-e.
With their 60-51 win over Toledo (12-12, 8-5 Mid-American Conference) Saturday, the Flashes (16-8, 9-4 MAC) have now won four straight games and are keeping pace with first-place Marshall. The Thundering Herd (17-7, 11-2 MAC) remains two games ahead of the Flashes with three games left in the regular season.
After a 0-4 conference start away from home, Kent State has won the last three games in convincing fashion.
In four losses, the Flashes lost by six points or less in each game.
In three wins, they won by an average of 24 points.
Granted, this came in large part from a 22-point win at Akron and a 42-point win at Buffalo — two of the MAC’s bottom-dwellers. But the Flashes looked equally impressive in a nine-point win against the Rockets, who had won three in a row coming into the game.
After a defensive breakdown against Marshall, in which the Flashes gave up 84 points, the defense responded by pressuring the ball for 40 minutes and forcing the offense to throw the ball everywhere on the court except in the basket. Toledo was the latest victim, as pressure from guards Melissa DeGrate, Malika Willoughby, Kerrie James and Tiffany Kelly forced the Rockets into 23 turnovers, resulting in 26 points for the Flashes.
“It was our defense,” DeGrate said. “Malika (Willoughby) pressuring the point guard. Us guards covering out on other guards. That’s what kept them frustrated, so they couldn’t run anything. That’s what’s gonna help us through the rest of the season. We’ve gotta play good defense. Bottom line.”
It was a combination of good pressure and strong rebounding on defense that kept the crowd of 2,406 at a whisper for most of the game. Any serious Toledo threat was silenced by turnovers, forced shots and clutch shooting.
Enter DeGrate again.
DeGrate, who played without a wrap on her dislocated left shoulder, set the pace on offense with a career-high 27 points. The senior guard shot 10-of-15 from the floor, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range. Two of DeGrate’s long bombs found the bottom of the net in the middle of a 10-0 run late in the first half, which turned a gridlocked game into a 32-22 halftime lead.
“This was a big game,” she said. “I knew this was a good team. I knew my team needed me to come out and play hard.”
The 60 points on offense came largely without leading scorer Lindsay Shearer. Shearer, who averages over 17 points a game, sat most of the second half after picking up her third and fourth fouls with nine minutes left. The junior forward finished with a season-low four points.
With Shearer playing the spectator role, La’Kia Stewart and Mallorie Griffith found more time on the center stage. They didn’t disappoint. The two combined for 16 points and 15 rebounds. Griffith also added a big block with less than 30 seconds left as the Rockets ran out of fuel.
“We need Lindsay to win,” DeGrate said. “When the other girls came in, they did a great job. They got on the boards. That’s the biggest part. They didn’t have to score a lot. They had some good passes, and they made some free throws. That helps us a lot.”
Toledo’s leading scorer Danielle Bishop could sympathize with Shearer’s struggles. Bishop, who averages over 16 points a game, finished with only seven points on 2-of-11 shooting.
Contact women’s basketball reporter Joe Murphy at [email protected]