Kent State comes off of three-and-a-half good games that led to just one victory as it hosts one of the best teams in the West Division Saturday.
“We’re playing our best basketball,” coach Danny O’Banion said at this week’s coaches’ luncheon. “We just need to win one.”
Winning one will be tough against Ball State, which is 16-6, 8-3 in the conference. The Cardinals bring with them a top candidate for MAC player of the year in senior Natalie Fontaine, a 6-2 wing from Stockholm, Sweden. Fontaine is second in the MAC in scoring at 21 points a game and third in rebounding at 10 points a game.
She had the 29th double-double of her career Wednesday in a74-65 loss last Central Michigan. She has been all-MAC every year of her career — second team her freshman and sophomore year, first team last season.
“I’m going to buy her a graduation card,” said O’Banion, who’s coached against her all four years she has been head coach at Kent.
Ball State has not been playing particularly well of late. Before Wednesday’s loss at CMU, the Cardinals barely beat Buffalo (59-57) and Akron (78-71) after losing to league-leader Ohio 68-67 at home Jan. 30.
Kent has been playing well for a team that is 4-21 and 1-10 in the conference. The Flashes beat Northern Illinois 95-85 Jan. 27, outplayed Central Michigan for a half Jan. 30 and lost to Miami and Toledo by three points each last week.
“Our record looks discouraging, but we’re not discouraged in the locker room,” O’Banion said. “We’re starting to understand what it takes to win. If you would watch practice, you wouldn’t know our record.”
Three players who have made a difference are two we expected to at the start of the year —sophomore forward Jordan Korinek and junior guard Larissa Lurken — and one we never did — walk-on freshman Paige Salisbury.
Salisbury joined the team just after the end of last school year. O’Banion said that the Brunswick High School graduate wanted to play Division I basketball even though her best high school sports probably was softball. (Salisbury still is in the top 10 in the record books in Brunswick in just about every statistical category.)
“Paige is a competitive young lady who just has played her way into the line-up,” O’Banion. “I remember when she and her parents were in my office when she wanted to walk on. I told her she wouldn’t touch the ball much in practice and she probably shouldn’t even look at me in a game.
“But she’s tough. We chart who’s playing on the teams that are winning in practice. Paige was always on the winning team. We figured that if she could do it in practice, she should get a chance in a game.”
Salisbury began to start four games ago, when Kent made a jump in quality of play.
“She’s not the fastest and not at the most elite level, but she takes care of the basketball and gets it to the places it needs to go.”
Salisbury had committed 12 turnovers in 282 minutes. That’s about the same rate (.04 per minute) as Ball State’s Jill Morrison, a third-team all-MAC player last season as a sophomore. Morrison does average 13 points and about two three-pointers a game.
Salisbury averages just 1.7 points and barely looked at the basket when she was coming off the bench. She did score eight points at Ohio two weeks ago. Salisbury played 66 minutes in two games last week; Naddiyah Cross, the starting guard at the beginning of the season, played 15. (To be fair, Cross has battled injuries over the last month.)
“An unlikely story,” O’Banion says.
Lurken and Korinek were more predictable.
Lurken was KSU’s leading scorer last season and third-leading as a freshman, but O’Banion says her growth as a player has been enormous.
“Her freshman year she sat in a corner and shot 3s,” the coach said. “Last season she started to make her own shots. This season she’s a complete player.”
Lurken has scored as much on drives as on long-range shooting this season and scored 38 points against Northern Illinois, eighth best in school history.
Korinek leads KSU in scoring at 15.7 points a game. “She’s going to be a Hall of Famer here,” O’Banion said. This week Korinek was named Academic All-District team. She has a 4.0 average in special education. She’s easily on pace to be a 1,000-point scorer at Kent State.
The Ball State game is a “Play 4Kay” fundraiser, part of a series of games across the country that helps raise money for the Kay Yow Foundation, which supports breast cancer research. Yow was a long-time women’s coach at North Carolina State, and battles several recurrences of cancer.
O’Banion, who was treated for lymphoma all last season, remains cancer free.