KSU seniors win the victory bell after their win over Buffalo. Photo from KSU website.
Kent State women’s basketball coach Todd Starkey was on the radio when the team called him over to finish with the net after the Flashes’ 80-71 victory over Buffalo Saturday.
“I’ve got to go cut this sucker down,” Starkey told KSU broadcaster Dave Wilson. “You don’t get to do this very often.”
Starkey climbed the ladder and took down what was left of the net — which was most of it after the players had taken small pieces for themselves.
Then Starkey walked over to senior Larissa Lurken, the player who had led the Flashes to a season no one ever saw coming, and dropped it over her head like a necklace.
It was a most fitting end for a regular season that saw Kent State accomplish one of the biggest turnarounds in school and conference history. The Flashes, 6-23 last season and tied for last in the MAC, finish the regular season 19-11 and alone in first place in the East Division at 13-5. They have won seven games in a row.
They now head to the MAC tournament quarterfinals at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland as a third seed. They’ll play either Toledo or Akron at about 8 p.m. Wednesday. Those two teams play at Toledo on Monday to see who advances to Cleveland. Full tournament bracket and Saturday results are below.
Toledo finished the regular season 20-8 and 12-6 in the MAC. The Rockets have won four in a row, including back-to-back wins at No. 2 seed Ball State and No. 4 seed Northern Illinois in the last games of the season. Kent State beat the Rockets 70-60 Jan. 21 in Kent, but the Rockets were without point guard Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott, a preseason all-MAC West selection. She missed the game with a concussion.
Akron finished 9-20 and 2-16 in the league. The Zips have lost their last 10 games. Kent State beat Akron twice during the season.
“The thing is the most fun for me is standing back and watching our team celebrate,” Starkey said in his postgame press conference. “To watch our players cut down the net…That’s the best thing for me — to be able to be a part of creating memories for them. I get more satisfaction out of watching them enjoy that anything that I get to do.”
Starkey took over as Kent State head coach in April after the Flashes had gone 27-119 over five years, never winning more than seven games and never finishing above 10th in the 12-team MAC. (Stories from April are here and here. Official biography is here.)
He installed a new offense and defense. He and Lurken immediately clicked. She had been a three-year starter and second-leading scorer on the team but was not remotely a star. She has flourished under Starkey’s offense, which has emphasized a faster pace and attacking the basket aggressively.
Lurken has had one of the best seasons in Kent State history, leading the MAC in scoring and the nation in free throws made and taken. She scored 32 points in her last game at the M.A.C. Center Saturday, making 15 of 15 free throws. She also had 13 rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and a steal, playing all but one minute of the game.
Lurken is 24 points away from KSU’s single-season scoring record, set 36 years ago by Bonnie Beachy.
“I’m not sure that in 20 years of coaching that I’ve had a player who bought into everything we tried to do from the start,” Starkey said. “She deserves a ton of credit for it.
“She’s having one of the best seasons of any women’s basketball player in the country. It won’t go as noticed because we’re not a Power 5 school. But you look at what she has meant to the turnaround of this program in one season…Is there a more valuable player to her team in the country?”
Lurken called the season “unbelievable.”
“I don’t think words can describe it, really” she said. “It’s something we’ve all wanted — and we’ve finally got it.”
The game was a great one for the Flashes to take into the tournament.
Buffalo had beaten Kent State 77-62 in January. Lurken didn’t score at all in the first half and the Flashes were really never in the game.
Saturday was competitive from the first minutes. Buffalo led by two after a quarter; Kent State came back to take a five-point lead at halftime. The Bulls tied the game halfway through the third quarter, then KSU pushed ahead with a 14-3 run at the end of the third quarter.
The game was 70-67 when McKenna Stephens hit a three-point shot with two minutes to go, and the Flashes pulled away from there.
“I was open and knew I had to shoot it,” Stephens said. “It was, ‘Step right in’ — a no brainer.”
A reporter asked her if she could feel that the shot was going in.
“I always feel it,” Stephens said. “Sometimes I miss, but I always feel it.”
Buffalo is one of the best defensive and rebounding teams in the conference, but the Flashes scored 15 points above the Bulls’ defensive average and outrebounded them, 44-40.
“We knew Buffalo was going to come out and be gritty and tough,” Lurken said. “We knew we had to match that. We didn’t up at their place.”
In the end, she said, “We didn’t want to share that title.”
“It’s not done yet,” Lurken said. “All of us — we want to keep winning. Not just in the tournament, but postseason as well. We’re not going to stop.”
- Stephens had the second double-double of her career with 11 points and 10 rebounds. She also had two assists, a two blocks and two steals in 39 minutes.
- Redshirt freshman Megan Carter made three three-point baskets for the first time in her career and had 13 points, three rebounds, five assists and a steal. She played a career-high 30 minutes. Over the last half of the conference season, she has averaged more than 25 minutes a game, which is more than starting point guard Naddiyah Cross.
- Jordan Korinek had 12 points and hit 10 of 12 free throws. She was 8 for 8 in the first half. She had three rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals.
- Alexa Golden had six points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block.
- The Flashes blocked a season-high eight shots. Both they and Buffalo had 17 turnovers; KSU scored four more points off of them (21-17). KSU forced seven turnovers from Buffalo’s Stephanie Reid, one of the best point guards in the conference.
- Kent State held Buffalo’s JoAnna Smith, who had scored 80 points in UB’s last three games with Kent, to 13 points on 5 of 23 shooting. Overall Buffalo was 29 for 75 from the field and 3 of 21 from three-point distance.
- Cassie Oursler, the Bulls’ 6-3 center, led them with 21 points and 9 rebounds. She didn’t play at all in the Kent game at Buffalo because of an ankle injury.
- The Flashes drew 28 fouls and made 26 of 30 free throws. It’s the 11th time this season that Kent State has shot more at least 30. KSU is third in the nation in foul shots attempted and first in foul shots made. Buffalo made 10 of 13 free throws. Two Bulls fouled out; three more finished with four fouls.
- One of the stranger plays of the season came with 20 seconds to go. KSU led 78-71 and inbounded the ball in front of its bench. Buffalo’s players stood near the half-court line. Carter caught the inbounds pass, looked confused as to why no defender was near her, and finally turned and made a layup.
- Starkey started his five seniors — Lurken, Stephens, Chelsi Watson, Lacey Miller and Keziah Lewis — on Senior Day. Miller and Lewis had never started before and had played sparingly this season. “I try to do that,” the coach said. “It’s something they’ll always remember. Some things are more important than basketball.” All five were escorted by family. Even Lewis, who is from New Zealand, had a sister there. In Senior Day introductions, Kent State also acknowledged Buffalo’s Smith, an all-MAC player who is the only senior on the Bulls’ team.
Game story from Kent State website, including video highlights and interview with Starkey and players.
Game story from Buffalo website. I don’t find quotes from Buffalo anywhere.
Other MAC scores
The official tournament bracket from the MAC
Central Michigan (15-3, 23-7) won the overall MAC championship and West Division Saturday with a 71-48 victory at home over Eastern Michigan. The Chippewas will have the No. 1 seed at the MAC Tournament. Eastern (1-17, 6-24) will be the 12th seed.
Ball State (14-4, 21-8) , which had been tied with CMU, lost in overtime at home to Toledo, 76-66. The Cardinals will get the No. 2 seed. Toledo is 12-6 and 21-8. The Rockets are the sixth seed.
Northern Illinois (19-10, 12-6) lost at Western Michigan, 90-77. The defeat knocked the Huskies to a No. 4 seed. Western finishes 8-10 and 17-12 and will have the No. 8 seed.
Ohio (21-8, 12-6) beat Akron at home, 62-48, to clinch the No. 5 seed. Akron is 9-20, 2-16.
Miami (5-13, 11-20) beat Bowling Green at BG, 75-65, to win ninth seed. The teams had been tied going into the game. Bowling Green finishes at 4-14 and 8-22.
The final standings look like this:
East: Kent State (13-5), Ohio (12-6), Buffalo (10-8), Miami (5-13), Bowling Green (4-14), Akron (2-16.
West: Central Michigan (15-3), Ball State (14-4), Northern Illinois and Toledo (12-6), Western Michigan (8-10), Eastern Michigan (1-17).
Game summaries from MAC website.