It was toward the end of a 45-minute press briefing Monday in advance of the MAC Tournament when coach Todd Starkey said:
“I didn’t think we were going to be very good.”
Next to him, Kent State’s three best players — guard Larissa Lurken and forwards Jordan Korinek and McKenna Stephens — nodded, with some smiles.
“I didn’t,” said Starkey, who became head coach in April. “Just watching us in workouts and some of the body language, some of the habits, some of the things that they were used to…I didn’t think we were going to be a very good team.
“I thought we had the possibility of being better than they had been.”
“Better” turned out to be one of the biggest turnarounds in Division I — a 226-spot jump in RPI, at least 13 more wins than last season (6-23 to 19-11), from a tie for last place in the conference to first place in the MAC East.
Asked a few minutes later when they had thought back in October, the players said they never would have imagined this season either.
“We really didn’t have anything to lose,” Lurken added.
“Really, we thought it couldn’t get worse,” Stephens said.
“It was an incremental thing,” Starkey said. “We never had pie-in-the-sky ideas. I did want them to understand that I wanted the program to have a championship mentality. For me, it was about establishing what our expectations are.
“They’re the ones that ran with it. I had to establish the direction and hold them accountable along the way. But they’re the ones that did it.”
Back in October, Starkey said, “It was like, ‘Well, why don’t we see what we can do here. Let’s just roll with this.”
First it was, “‘Hey, we just want to win as many games as we did last year,’ Then, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get to 10 wins?’ Then, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to double last year’s win total.
“Then all of a sudden, ‘We’re at 12 wins. If we can get just to 16, we would guarantee a winning season.
“That was how it really unfolded for us. We weren’t like, ‘Let’s go for this East Division championship’ back in January. We broke it down in the locker room into segments — four mini seasons.
“Then all of a sudden we’ve got three games left, and we’re like, ‘Let’s win out, and win the East Division.'”
Going into the interview, my angle for this post was going to be “confidence” — how a group that had never won learned to believe it could.
The players talked about the familiar litany of the season — winning their first two games, taking on a big-time field at the Florida Gulf Coast Showcase (“seeing we could complete with really good teams, really good players,” Lurken said).
Starkey said that for him, the turning point of the season was a January game against the team that eventually finished last in the MAC.
“After the Ball State game, I saw themselves sliding back into doubting themselves again,” he said. “We did not play well. Ball State dominated us in the second half. (Kent State scored 14 points.)
“The next two days of practice, going into Eastern Michigan, it was, ‘Let’s push a reset button. Let’s have this game be the one we look back at and say that.'”
KSU beat Eastern, 86-67.
It lost its next game 98-97 to Northern Illinois. In the locker room, Starkey said, “I saw some looks on their faces I hadn’t seen before. I think they believed they should have won that game, that, ‘No, that’s not acceptable.'”
Lurken, he said, wasn’t unhappy. “She was mad.”
Then came what at the time seemed like the biggest upset for a Kent State women’s team in many years.
The Flashes played at first-place Ohio, the two-time defending conference champion. The Bobcats had been undefeated at home and had lost only two games over three years.
“That was the first game that I felt that in our heads, ‘We’re fine. We’ve got this,'” Korinek said. “In the past, we would doubt, especially in close games. We were down four, and I’m thinking, ‘We’re fine. We’re going to win.’ You could tell on everyone’s faces.”
“That gave us so much confidence,” Stephens said. “From there on out, any game, even if we were down, we had the confidence, that we were going to come back and win.”
Since then, Kent State has 11 of 13 games.
“I think that we’ve proven that we belong in the upper echelon of this conference,” Starkey said. “And they continue to stay hungry. It’s not like, ‘Yeah, cool season.’
“Now they really want to put a stamp on it.”
Kent State’s first 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 or the MAC website. 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.
A bus will take up to 50 students to games. The bus ride and tickets are free. Students can register for the trip at 1 p.m. today (Tuesday) at the M.A.C. Center.
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 ESPN3, Spectrum Sports (formerly Time Warner) and BCSN.
Audio will be on WHLO 640 and Golden Flash iHeart Radio, starting about 15 minutes before game time.
I’ll have a full preview on matchups and game-day preparations on the blog later today. All-conference teams also will be announced this afternoon.