Buffalo game Saturday is seniors’ last in Kent, but they’ll play again in MAC tournament Wednesday

seniorsKSU seniors (from left) Chelsi Watson, Lacey Miller, Larissa Lurken, Keziah Lewis and McKenna Stephens with coach Todd Starkey. Photo from KSU website.

Senior center Lacey Miller has been on the Kent State women’s basketball team for three years.

She’s played exactly 19 minutes. She has scored two points in her career.

Senior guard Keziah Lewis is the only Kent State player not to score a point this season. She’s played 26 minutes this year.

Yet the two have been significant parts of one of the most best stories in Kent State sports history.

One thing this year’s team — which has gone from from last place in 2016 to first place in the MAC East this season — has is chemistry.

First year coach Todd Starkey has said many times how much the KSU players seem to like each other and how well they work together. Former coach Danny O’Banion said the same thing a year ago.

Miller and Lewis are very much a part of that. Watch team members on social media, and it’s easy to tell they’re as much a part of the group as senior Larissa Lurken, a four-year starter who is having one of the best years in Kent State basketball history — men or women.

Miller, Lewis and Lurken, along with Chelsi Watson and McKenna Stephens, will be honored at Senior Day Saturday in their last game at the M.A.C. Center. The Flashes play Buffalo at 2 p.m.

Miller joined the team as a walk-on her sophomore year. She was a transfer from Mercyhurst North East, a two-year campus of Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. She played high school basketball at Mentor High school.

Miller never played a minute in the regular season her first season but earned a scholarship from O’Banion, who saw her a major contributor in practice. She got in three games last season and seven this year, scoring her first and only basket against No. 2 Baylor at the Gulf Coast Showcase tournament. She’s a special education major.

Lewis grew up about as far from Kent State as anywhere in the world — Hobsonville, New Zealand. That’s 8,500 miles. O’Banion found her at Ellsworth Junior College in Iowa Falls, Iowa, where she scored 771 points in two seasons. She never became the scorer Kent hoped she’d be. Last season she played in 22 games, scoring 26 points.

Lurken, of course, we all know about. She’s leading the MAC in scoring, leading the nation in free throws made and attempted, and is among league leaders in nine of 13 officials categories. She was named a second-team academic All-American this week. You can read all about that at this blog post.

Watson was the first player for the bench last season and a situational player this year. Starkey uses her when he needs a quick post player, especially on defense. Watson is just 5-10 but has the highest vertical leap on the team. Though she averages just 13 minutes a game, she has 43 offensive rebounds — second on the team. Watson is from Monroe, Louisiana, and player at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas, before transferring to Kent State.

Stephens is sort of a senior. Academically, she’s in her fourth year of college and will  graduate this year. But because she transferred to Kent State from Michigan State, NCAA rules required her to sit out a year. So she has a year of eligibility left, in which she could attend graduate school on full athletic scholarship. That’s not uncommon; men’s player Galal Cancer was a grad student in business a year ago.

Starkey said in an email that Stephens’ plans for next year were “not definite.” Other Kent State players have forgone their last year of eligibility before. Most prominent one was Andrea Csaszar, at 6-6 the tallest player ever to play women’s basketball at KSU. Csaszar, a second-team all-MAC player in 2002 and 2004, lost a year to a knee injury but graduated on time and returned to Europe to play professional basketball. (She’s still playing and averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds for BBC Les Portes du Soleil Troistorrents in Switzerland.)

Stephens, a 6-foot forward, has been Kent State’s third leading scorer and rebounder this season. Her emergence as a scoring threat — she’s been in double figures 10 times in conference play — made a huge difference in KSU’s run to the division title. She’s started every game this season except one and averages 8.9 points and 5.4 rebounds a game.

In conference games alone, she ranks sixth in the league in field goal percentage (53.2 percent), 25th in scoring average and 15th in rebounding average. She has one of the best midrange jump shots in the conference and is second on Kent State with 23 three-point baskets. She started 19 games last season and three her freshman year, when she was eligible on the the second semester.

Stephens originally went to Michigan State on a softball scholarship and transferred to Kent State in basketball after she injured her throwing arm. She was a third-team all-state player in basketball at Lake High School in Uniontown. Stephens majors in public health.

About Saturday’s Buffalo game

10 days ago, it looked as if this game might determine the MAC East title and the fourth seed in the league tournament.

Now it means little as far as the standings are concerned.

Kent State has clinched at least a tie for first in the East and is guaranteed the first-round bye in the tournament next week at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. A Buffalo loss at Bowling Green last Saturday dropped it to third in the East, two games behind Kent State. The Bulls will host a first-round tournament game next week.

Starkey said KSU’s clinching the East title Wednesday allowed the team to “exhale” and avoid the pressure of a must-win game against Buffalo.

“It’s our senior night,” the coach said on KSU’s weekly Flash Talk radio show Thursday. “We want to make sure we show our best and continue our trend of play upward. But it’s nice we know we don’t have (the fight for tournament seeding) hanging over our head. We know we’re not going to play against until Wednesday.

Buffalo, he said, is “one of the toughest matchups in the league for us.” (The Bulls beat Kent State 77-62 in Buffalo last month.)

“The thing about Buffalo is that they have to think about playing on Monday, no matter what happens on Saturday,” Starkey said. “And to be honest, Monday is a more important game for them.

“I don’t know if their approach is going to be, ‘Let’s go for broke and win,’ or ‘We’ve got to rest some kids.'”

In Buffalo, the Bulls held Kent State to 8 points in the first quarter and 23 in the first half. Lurken didn’t score at all in the half for the only time in conference play.

“At their best, they’re as good a defensive team as there is in the conference,” Starkey said.

Buffalo beat KSU without its third-leading scorer and rebounder, 6-3 Cassie Ourseler, who was out with an ankle injury. In the Bulls 81-55 win at Akron Wednesday, Ourseler had 12 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks. She’s had three blocks in four straight games.

Junior point guard Stephanie Reid is fifth in the nation with 8.1 assists per game. She played only three minutes in the first half against KSU in the first game because of foul trouble. JoAnna Smith, the only senior on the Bulls, averages 17 points a game and scored 31 against Akron. In her last three games against Kent State, she has scored a total of 70 points and made 13 three-point baskets. She made 7 of 10 three-pointers in Kent last season.

Buffalo’s record is 20-8, 10-7 in the MAC. The Bulls won their first nine games of the season and still have a higher RPI (93) than Kent (102).

Kent State is 18-11, 12-5 in league play.

seedings-3-3Chart from MAC sports information department

The seedings game

Kent State has clinched a first-round bye and at least the fourth seed in the MAC tournament. They will play either Ohio or Toledo on Wednesday. But which one depends on Saturday’s results.

If the Flashes win Saturday and Northern Illinois (19-9, 12-5) loses at Western Michigan (16-12, 7-10), KSU gets the third seed. In that case, KSU’s opponent would likely be Toledo (11-6, 20-8) if the Rockets lose at first-place Ball State (14-3, 21-8). It would be Ohio (11-6, 20-8) if Ohio loses at Akron (2-15, 9-19) and Toledo beats Ball State.

If Kent State gets the fourth seed, they’ll play Ohio if the Bobcats win. They’ll play Toledo if the Rockets win and Ohio loses.

That’s assuming that Ohio and Toledo win their first-round games Monday, which will be against Akron and Eastern Michigan, the worst two teams in the league.

Kent State beat defending-champion Ohio twice during the season in close games, 68-65 in Athens and 83-77 in overtime in Kent. The Flashes beat Toledo 70-60 in Kent in February.  Toledo star Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott missed the game with a concussion.

KSU won’t play Buffalo. The Bulls can’t get any better than a sixth seed, and to do that, they need to beat KSU. If they do, KSU can’t get any better than a fourth seed.

At least, that’s the best I can figure it. With the MAC’s five levels of tie breakers if teams have the same record, it can be very confusing.

If you can’t go to the game

  • Video starts at 2 p.m. on the Kent State website.
  • Audio starts at about 1:50 on Golden Flash iHeart radio and 640 AM WHLO.
  • Live statistics can be followed though the KSU website.
  • In-game updates on Twitter are at @KentStatwbb.

Kent State statistics, with links to roster and schedule/results.

Preview from the Buffalo website, with links to statistics, roster and schedule/results.

Preview from the Kent State website.

MAC statistics and standings, with links both to overall and conference-only stats.

Here’s an interesting Wednesday column from Kent Stater sports editor Henry Palattella, urging students to go to women’s games. KSU’s attendance this year averages 390, 11th in the 12-team MAC.

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