The Flashes, with KSU President Bev Warren (far left), after they beat Buffalo Saturday to win the undisputed MAC East championship. Photo from KSU athletics Twitter feed.
The only time current Kent State players have ever been to the MAC Tournament in Cleveland, they sat in the stands.
Two years ago, former coach Danny O’Banion took her team to watch the top eight teams in the league play at Quicken Loans Arena. She wanted to inspire them to make it to the Q some day.
The Flashes have made it.
New coach Todd Starkey has the team as No. 3 seed and in the quarterfinals against Toledo Wednesday. The game is the last of the four games that day; it should start between between 7:30 and 8 p.m. (First game is at noon; subsequent games start a half hour after the previous game ends.)
“In my head, I just wanted to get there some day,” junior forward Jordan Korinek said in a pre-tournament group interview Monday. “Now we’re there.”
“There are no words” to describe the feeling, senior forward McKenna Stephens said. “I’m so looking forward to getting to that hotel in Cleveland.”
“But I want to play more than one game,” said senior guard Larissa Lurken, the newly named conference player of the year.
Game One is Toledo. The Rockets and Flashes may be the hottest two teams in the conference. Toledo has won five games in a row, including back-to-back road wins at No. 2 seed Ball State and No. 4 Northern Illinois in the last week of the regular season. Kent State has won seven in a row.
The Flashes beat Toledo 70-60 in Kent Jan. 27.
That was the probably the low point of the season for the Rockets. It was their third loss in a row. Junior guard Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott, a preseason all-MAC West selection, missed the game with a concussion. After the game, Toledo coach Tricia Cullop shook her head and took the team home to regroup during a bye week. (Here’s post on that game.)
The Rockets beat eventual MAC champion Central Michigan 74-72 in Toledo a week later. They’ve been 10-2 since.
“Toledo is a better team than they were when we played them,” Starkey said. “But so are we.
“Can Toledo beat us? No question. Can we beat Toledo? We’ve already proven that.”
Toledo placed leading scorer Janice Monakana, a 6-foot senior guard from London, on the All-MAC second team. Bravo-Harriott, 5-11 guard and another Londoner, and Mikaeyla Boyd, a 5-7 guard, were third-team members. Mariella Santucci, a 5-6 guard from Italy, made the all-freshman team.
Monakana, Bravo-Harriott, Boyd and 6-2 post player Kaayla McIntyre all average between 10 and 15 points a game. Boyd, the second shortest player in the starting lineup, leads the team in rebounding at 8.7 per game. (All of the statistics I’m using in this post are conference games only, which I think is the best measure at this point in the season.)
Five other players average more than eight minutes a game (two more than 10), but no bench player averages more than 3 points or rebounds.
Kent State’s record is 9-2 since the two teams last played.
The biggest difference in the KSU team is the emergence of new scorers in the lineup. In the first Toledo game, Lurken scored 22 points and Korinek 23. Both have continued to average similar numbers. No one else scored more than 5 points.
Stephens has scored in double figures in seven of KSU’s 11 games since then. She is sixth in the conference in field goal percentage (53.2) and leads the MAC in three-point percentage (45.2). (She just hit the minimum number of shots to make the three-point list.) Stephens is 15th in the conference in rebounding at 6.8 per game land 25th in scoring at 11.8.
Point guard Megan Carter has played more minutes than starter Naddiyah Cross since the first Toledo game. She’s scored in double figures four times and hit 3 of 3 three-point shots in Saturday’s win over Buffalo.
Alexa Golden, KSU’s other starting guard and defensive specialist, has made 7 of 13 three-pointers in the Flashes’ last four games and scored 8 points three times.
Statistical comparisons between the teams (conference games only):
- Points: Kent State 75.2 per game, Toledo 65.6.
- Points against: Toledo 62.5, Kent State 73.8.
- Field goal percentage: Kent State 41.5, Toledo 38.9.
- Field goal defense: Toledo 36.4, Kent State 42.3.
- Three-point percentage: Kent State 32.9, Toledo 24.3
- Three-point defense: Toledo 24.1, Kent State 36.5.
- Free-throw percentage: Kent State 74.8, Toledo 68.3. (KSU also has taken 71 more foul shots — 4 per game — than Toledo. That’s a key part of Kent State’s game.)
- Rebounding margin: Kent State +2.0, Toledo +1.8.
- Turnover margin: Toledo +1.43, Kent State +0.21.
- Assists: Kent State 15.2, Toledo 15.1.
- Steals: Toledo 8.2, Kent State 7.4.
- Blocked shots: Kent State 3.6, Toledo 3.1.
Numbers, of course, won’t decide the game.
Kent’s players argue it will be “who wants it more,” in Stephens’ and Korinek’s words.
“Hustle plays, 50-50 balls, rebounds,” Stephens said. “I think it’s going to come down to possession basketball — individual possessions.”
Starkey didn’t quite agree.
“I think that at this point, if you’re not playing hard, you’re not hustling, you’re not going to advance,” he said. “So we’re not going to see any team that’s not playing hard.
“What I think separates teams at this time of year is execution. You’ve got to be able to execute down the stretch. You’re going to play tight games. Whether it’s a defensive strategy or an offensive play, you’ve got to be able execute.”
I watched the team practice for 45 minutes on Monday. It was very different from the practice I saw right before the season started. The team was focused. It was handling far more sophisticated instruction easily. And it was loose.
“We’re kind of playing with house money,” Starkey said. “Nobody expected us to be here. So much more of the pressure relies on other people than us. That’s why we can be a little looser in practice. And that’s why your team has the possibility of playing their best — when you can play a little more relaxed.”
MAC Tournament website, including links to bracket, ticket information, directions to the Q and MAC statistics.
Watch Kent State’s defense. The Flashes were 11-0 when they held MAC teams under 70 points. I think they’ll do it. Kent State by five, 73-68.
- If Kent State wins, it will play the winner of the Ball State-Buffalo game at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
- The last time the Flashes played at the Q, they lost in the quarterfinals to Eastern Michigan in 2011. The last time they won a game, they beat Central Michigan in the quarterfinals in 2010, then lost to Toledo 51-49 in the semifinals.
- Kent State and Toledo have played each other in the MAC title game seven times. Toledo won five. Toledo leads the all-time series against Kent State 41-29.
To follow the game
- Kent State’s quarterfinal game against Toledo is the last of the day Wednesday. It should start between 7:30 and 8 p.m.
- You can get tickets through the Kent State (at the M.A.C. Center or calling 330-672-2244), MAC website or at the Q. All tickets are $10 general admission. One ticket gets you into all the quarterfinal games. Another will get you in both semifinal games Friday. Men’s and women’s teams are separate.
- There will be pregame receptions with free appetizers before any game KSU plays. First one will be at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Flannery’s Irish Pub at 323 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, a short walk from the Q.
- The quarterfinals and semifinals, which start at 11 a.m. Friday, will be televised on ESPN3 and Spectrum Sports. You need to subscribe to ESPN through cable or satellite in order to access ESPN3 online.
- Audio will be on WHLO 640 and Golden Flash iHeart Radio, starting about 15 minutes before game time.
- Live statistics are available through the MAC.
- Live Twitter feed is @kentstatewbb.