Jordan Korinek in action vs. Toledo Saturday. Photo from kentstatesports.com.
First it was beating Ohio and Western Michigan, both 13-3 at the time, on the road.
Saturday it was beating 12-5 Toledo at home, 70-60.
The Kent State women’s basketball team is very much for real.
The Flashes are 4-3 in the Mid-American Conference and in second place in the East Division. It’s the first time they’ve been above .500 in MAC play in six years. KSU is 10-9 overall.
Last year’s team — with essentially the same players — was 6-23 and had the worst record in the conference. No Kent team had won more than seven games since 2010-11.
New coach Todd Starkey and a group of re-inspired players have changed that.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year was that we didn’t want to be the conference doormat anymore,” Starkey said in the team’s postgame press conference. “We wanted to be a team people had to prepare for.
“That’s where we’ve evolved to. What we do from here … The last 11 games aren’t going to win themselves just because we won the last three. Today we were far from error free. The good thing is that this team has definitely not peaked yet. Our best basketball is still ahead of us if we stay focused.”
Jordan Korinek, who has averaged more than 20 points a game in the conference season, had one of her best games of the year. She had 23 points on 7 of 14 shooting, made 9 of 10 foul shots, had 10 rebounds and two blocked shots. Larissa Lurken had 22, almost exactly her MAC-leading average. She also made 7 of 14 field goal attempts (2 of 5 three-pointers), had six rebounds and two blocks.
Kent State led Toledo from the first basket and built an 18-point lead early in the fourth quarter. The Rockers pulled within seven twice in the last two minutes, but KSU got key rebounds and hit foul shots to win the game.
“At the end of the day, you know Toledo is not going away,” Starkey said. “We knew they were going to come at us. I thought we lost our minds a little bit but there for about five or six minutes, and consequently I lost my mind for five minutes, trying to get them to keep Toledo off the offensive glass and do what we needed to do.”
Starkey was as animated as he’s been on the sideline all season, imploring his team to box out on rebounding. And the Flashes got five defensive and two offensive rebounds in the last two minutes.
As the coach has preached since he arrived on campus, the Flashes won the game with defense. Toledo made only 33 percent of its 75 shots (actually 30 more than KSU had) and made just 3 of 21 three-point attempts.
The Rockets had struggled with shooting in their two previous games, losses last week at home to Ohio and Northern Illinois. But for most of the game, Kent State’s defense — mostly a 2-3 zone — was as good as it’s been all season. The 60 points was the third fewest Kent State has allowed all season (the others were non-MAC teams with a combined 6-28 record). Toledo’s 60 points were its third lowest total of the season and 12 points below its average.
“It’s a misnomer that if you play zone, you’re going to get beat from the outside with the three,” Starkey said. “What we’ve done is really tried to put man principles into our zone. We’re pressing up on the basketball, we’re guarding shots, we’re matching up with people. We’re not playing a stagnant 2-3. It’s more of a matchup zone or a hybrid zone.”
Starkey had strong praise for Lurken and Korinek, Kent’s two leading scorers on the season.
“These two are playing great basketball,” he said, gesturing to them at the press conference. “It’s really been fun to see them continuing to get better, to understand how to use each other, to see how their teammates work. They’re continuing to become better leaders.”
Korinek credited Lurken’s offense with her own improved scoring.
“People are keying on Larissa, and it’s opening me up,” she said. “I’m getting more easy shots as it’s working out in conference play.”
“We’re knowing who to get the ball to in certain situations,” Lurken said. “We’re not perfect, but we understand that a lot more.”
Lurken said the team’s 98-97 loss to Northern Illinois two weeks ago has sparked the team.
“I think it fueled us,” she said. “We came out in these last three games and really worked out tail off to win and not just come back from being down but rather holding a lead.”
The Flashes get another crack at Northern Wednesday, this time in Dekalb. NIU is 6-1 (13-5 overall) in the MAC and tied for first place in the West Division. The Huskies beat Miami (7-13, 1-6 in the MAC) 89-76 at home Saturday.
- Starkey had worried about Kent State being hurt by Toledo’s pressure defense, which leads the MAC in turnover margin. But Saturday’s game was almost the opposite. Kent outscored scored the Rockers 16-7 off turnovers; at one point in the game, it was 16-2. The Flashes did have more turnovers (18-15).
- As it’s done through most of the season, Kent State badly outscored its opponent at the foul line. The Flashes, who are third in the nation free throws made and fifth in free throw attempts, were 25 of 34. Toledo was 7 of 13. Two Rockets fouled out. Janice Monakana, a preseason all-MAC West selection, played only 19 minutes because of foul trouble, though she did score 19 points and have 7 rebounds.
- Toledo’s leading scorer, Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott, missed the game with a concussion. She also was a preseason all-MAC West player and was league freshman of the year two seasons ago.
- It was Toledo’s first road loss of the season. All of its other defeats came at home or at neutral sites. Kent State is now 5-3 at home, 1-3 in the MAC.
- Point guard Naddiyah Cross made 5 free throws in the fourth quarter and 7 of 10 overall. Her backup, Megan Carter, was the only Kent State reserve to play more than 10 minutes. Carter went down hard when was was fouled on a layup in the first half and lay on the floor for a few minutes. “She was a little scared,” Starkey said. Carter has had surgery on her shoulder and both knees and missed all but three games last season.
- Guard Alexa Golden had four points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals, a block and zero turnovers.
- Lurken, who is third in the conference in minutes played, was in the game all but a few seconds of the second quarter. She, Korinek, Golden and McKenna Stephens all played at least 36 minutes.
- For the game, Kent State made 21 of 45 field goals for 46.7 percent. That’s its third highest percentage of the season.
- Toledo outrebounded Kent State 44-35 and had 21 offensive rebounds. But the Rockets managed only 10 second-chance points.
- The Rockets had beaten Kent State eight straight times, going back to February 2010.
The view from Toledo
(From video on the Toledo website)
Coach Tricia Cullop: “We came into the game really banged up. The day after the Ohio game, I had three kids out of practice.
“The thing that hurt was having Jay-Ann out and having Janice in foul trouble and having Kaayla have a poor night. That was really, really hard on us. (That’s 6-2 center Kaayla McIntyre, who went 1 for 6 and had 4 rebounds.)
“We have got to hit shots. I think it comes down to that. The first half, I don’t think we could have got better looks than we got.
“Where we can get better is just making some shots and stop fouling because we’re fouling people out we need in there.”
(On an upcoming bye week)
“We need this week to get healthy again and to remind ourselves what we’re good at. When you’ve had some losses, you start doubting yourself a little bit, and I don’t want that. I think we have so many things we can do well. We need to get back to what our identity is.”
Senior forward Janice Monakana: “We came out kind of slow but toward the end of the game got our heart back. Going into our next games, we need to start how we finished.
“We struggled to make some easy shots that I know we can make and will make in the games coming up. It’s just focusing so the lead doesn’t get too big.”
Game story from Kent State website, including video highlights and interview with Starkey.
Game story from Toledo website, includes links to interviews with Cullop and Monakana.
Other MAC scores
Central Michigan (14-5, 6-1) lost its first league game of the season at Buffalo (14-4, 4-3), 67-56. That makes for a three-way tie for first place in the MAC West with Ball State and Northern Illinois, also 6-1. (Those teams are the three to beat Kent State.) Earlier this season, Central had beaten Buffalo at home 88-71.
Ohio (14-4, 5-2) beat Eastern Michigan (5-14, 0-7) at home, 68-51. The Bobcats are a game ahead of Kent State and Buffalo in the MAC East.
Western Michigan (14-4, 5-2) beat Akron (8-10, 1-6), 73-57 at Akron.
Ball State (13-6, 5-1) beat Bowling Green (5-14, 1-6) at BG, 75-53.
Game stories from MAC website.