McKenna Stephens takes aim. Photo from KSU website.
The win was five years coming, but the key was seven minutes in the second quarter.
After Akron had broken a first 15-15 tie at the quarter with a 7-2 run, Kent State’s Marissa Barber-Smith scored under the basket on a pass from Megan Carter.
Then the Flashes scored every way they could: A foul shot and a layup by Larissa Lurken. An offensive putback by Chelsi Watson. Two straight three-point baskets by McKenna Stephens off passes from Lurken and Carter. Then a three-pointer by Carter.
20 straight points later Kent State was on its way to its first victory over Akron since February 2012. The Flashes had lost eight straight to the Zips; senior Lurken had never beaten Akron.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Stephens, who had a career-high 20 points and four three-point baskets. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve lost, which has been” — she paused — “horrible.”
“We’ve been talking about Akron since the beginning of the season. But,” she said, looking at coach Todd Starkey as he whispered in her ear, “we’ve been trying to stay focused at one game at a time.”
The final score was 72-58.
Kent State is 14-11 and 8-5 in the conference. They’re in second place in the Eastern Divsion, a game and half behind Ohio, which beat Ball State, 72-68, Saturday at Ball State. Before that game, Ball State had the best record in the MAC.
The victory cemented Kent State’s spot in fifth place overall in the league. Buffalo, which had been a half game behind the Flashes, lost to Northern Illinois at home, 89-80.
Akron, struggling through its worst season since 2010-11, is 9-14 and 2-10 in the conference.
Korinek had 17 points and Lurken 14 for the Flashes. It was the lowest point total in the MAC season for Lurken, who leads the conference in scoring and was fifth in the nation going into Saturday’s game. It was only the third conference game where she scored less than 20 points. But she also had six assists, four steals, four rebounds and two blocked shots.
But it was Stephens’ game in many ways. Her four three-pointers were a career best. She now has 19 for the year on 52 shots — 35.2 percent. She had 12 all last season.
“I was just a midrange player, and I really wanted to expand my game,” she said. “It was a focus over the summer and preseason.”
Starkey said the Stephens’ scoring — almost double in conference play over the early season — has made a big difference in the Flashes’ offense.
“McKenna and Jordan have really come a long ways since our conference season started,” the coach said. “When we have three people who can score the ball like Larissa, Jordan and McKenna, it makes it so much harder to defend us.”
Before the league season, Stephens and Korinek were averaging about 16 points between them. In the MAC, they’re averaging almost 30.
Stephens said that setting screens for other players is key to her offense.
“Screens for Larissa get me pretty open because they’re so worried about her, they’re sending two people,” she said. “It’s leaving me wide open.”
“So you just screen…” Starkey said to her teasingly at the press conference.
“I screen, and I get open, and I shoot,” Stephens said.
Stephens made 8 of 13 shots Saturday. Her 52 percent shooting on field goals in MAC play ranks ninth in the conference.
Kent State had 20 assists on its 29 baskets, its second straight game over 20.
“Our offensive efficiency was really good,” Starkey said. “I thought we did a great job of finding the right person based on the way we were being defended.
“We’ve been a little stagnant offensively, so we try to put in a few different things that will counteract the way teams are beginning to defend us, especially Larissa and Jordan.
“We had some good looks at first and second options in the offense, but when we swung the ball to the other side of the floor, and found the third and fourth options, we really got some good looks. And we were patient enough to execute to get the ball where it needed to be and finish plays.”
Kent State now gets a week to prepare for first-place Ohio, which is in Kent for a 2 p.m. game Saturday. The Flashes beat OU in Athens 68-65 on Jan. 14. They’re the only team to beat Ohio at home this season. “They’re going to come in ready to fight,” Starkey said.
But in the meantime, the Flashes get some time off.
“We need it,” Starkey said. “We’re the third week of the byes, so we’re the last round. We kind of feel like getting to this point was survival for us. We need the rest. We’ve got players who have played significant minutes.”
Stephens put it like this:
“A lot of our players need some rest. The legs – and everything.”
- Kent State dominated the second and third quarters, outscoring Akron 44-24. In the fourth quarter, Starkey said, “We sort of took our foot off the gas.” A statistic that shows that: For three quarters, the Flashes outscored Akron off turnovers 26-12. At the end of the game, it was 26-22.
- The Flashes made 29 of 60 shots for 48.3 percent. Akron was 22 of 64 for 34.4 percent.
- The 58 points were the fewest Kent has allowed in the conference season and the third fewest of the year. It was 14 points below their opponents’ season average.
- KSU outscored Akron in the paint 34-24 despite Korinek’s missing the whole second quarter with foul trouble.
- Redshirt freshman Carter played a career-high 33 minutes, scoring nine points and having four assists. She came in when starting point guard Naddiyah Cross picked up her second foul two minutes in the game. Carter played so well that Cross couldn’t get back int he game.
- KSU shot only 13 free throws, making 8. Both were the Flashes second lowest totals of the year (they were 5 of 8 at Iowa). Kent had been leading the nation in made free throws and was third in attempts. Lurken was 6 of 8; she still leads Division I in free throws made and attempted.
- Hannah Plybon had 24 points and five three-pointers (out of 16 attempts) for Akron. No other Zip had more than six.
- The win gives Kent State a half point in the Crystal Clinic Wagon Wheel Challenge, the all-sports competition between Kent and Akron. The Zips lead 3.5-2.0.
The view from Akron
Coach Jodi Kest
“Today Kent State was the better team and even beforehand, they had been playing better basketball than us. So we knew we had to do certain things in order to beat them, and we didn’t do those things.”
“We decided to take away things from one person and allow other people to score, and some of those people did that.”
“I think their seniors were tired of losing to us these last three years. I could see in their eyes when they came out for warmups that they were 100 percent focused on this game and their season.”
“Kent State did a really good job of executing their stuff — excellent job. When they had mismatches, they took advantage of it. They did a great job of sharing the ball. This team is not just about Jordan and Larissa. I think Larissa — yes, she is scoring a lot of points and all that, but she’s a very unselfish player. She’s always looking to pass to her teammates.”
“Those kids at Kent State just have a lot of confidence right now, and it shows in how they play. Right now we don’t have great confidence. All we can do is learn from this game and get back on Wednesday and regroup. It’s going to be about working a little bit harder than we have and fighting a little bit harder.”
“Hopefully we can learn from tonight because Kent State, regardless of whether things went good or bad, they fought for 40 minutes.”
“For us, it continues to be the same things. It’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s about doing the little things that we need to do. It’s about knowing what your role is. We just take too many bad shots and execute poorly. When we take bad shots, it doesn’t matter to me whether it goes in. It’s just bad. I’d rather we take good shots and it goes in and out. Because every time we take bad shots, bad things happen in transition.”
Game story from Kent State website, including video highlights and interviews with Stephens and Starkey.
Game story from the Akron website.
Game story from KentWired (the student newspaper website), which includes extra photos from the game.
Other MAC scores
Central Michigan (18-6, 10-2) 94, Western Michigan (14-9, 5-7) 83 at Central. The victory moves Central into a tie for first in the West with Northern Illinois.
Northern Illinois (17-6, 10-2) 89, Buffalo (16-7, 6-6) 80 at Buffalo.
Ohio (18-5, 9-3) 72, Ball State (17-8, 10-3) 68 at Ball State.
Miami (9-16, 3-9) 79, Eastern Michigan (6-18, 1-11) 63 at Eastern.
Toledo (16-7, 7-5) 74, Bowling Green (6-18, 2-10) 59 at Toledo.
Game stories from MAC website.