Larissa Lurken drives against Toledo’s Mariella Santucci in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.
Kent State’s women’s basketball team lived by the foul shot all season.
Wednesday the Flashes’ Cinderella season ended for the lack of it.
KSU — first in the nation in free throws made and second in free throws attempted — never got to the foul line in the fourth quarter in its MAC tournament quarterfinal game against Toledo and lost, 67-63.
The game may not be the team’s last — coach Todd Starkey has hopes for a WNIT bid. But it does end a MAC season that saw them go from a tie for last place a year ago to an East Division championship and No. 3 seed in the conference tournament this season.
All three top seeded teams lost Wednesday in games decided in the last minute. The fourth seed won by a point in the last minute. It was that kind of amazing, exciting day at the tournament. Friday’s semifinal matchups will be No. 8 Western Michigan against No. 4 Northern Illinois and No. 6 Toledo against No. 7 Buffalo.
As exciting as the day was for the MAC, it was a crashing disappointment for Kent State.
“After the game, I reminded our players that it’s supposed to hurt,” Starkey said. “This is what is supposed to feel like when you expect to win. And we haven’t had that in this program for a while — the expectation of winning.
“When you expect to win and it doesn’t happen, it feels different. That’s why it’s been difficult. They fought very hard to get to this point.”
Kent State, battling back from a 10-point deficit in the first half, took a six-point lead into the fourth quarter and led 59-52 with eight minutes to go.
But the Flashes scored only four points for the rest of the game.
Toledo’s defense moved to a whole different level.
Kent State struggled to get shots off and to make shots when it did (3 of 13 in the quarter). But most important, the Flashes never could draw the fouls they’ve used to win so many games this season.
“That’s been our game, and it really hurt us,” said senior Larissa Lurken, who leads the nation in getting to the foul line. “I think we were expecting contact and expecting calls from the refs that we weren’t getting. We just weren’t going up strong enough. And when we were going up against two or three people, we weren’t finding the open players.”
Lurken, Starkey said, “was trying to make the right plays — plays that she’s been making all year.”
“Toledo did a really good job of crowding her on drives, sending a second and third player,” he said. “One of the things our teams has struggled with at times is when Larissa is trying to make a play, they can be standing and watching and not moving off of her and getting to open space. So we got stagnant.”
Part of the problem, the coach said, might have been in his play calling.
“I probably could have called a few actions that started the ball away from her, then gotten it to her late off screens,” Starkey said.
A key play in the fourth quarter provided a critical and almost fluke three-point basket for Toledo.
The Rockets led 63-61 with two minutes to go and had the ball with the shot clock running down.
Toledo didn’t seem to know it. The ball got passed around, then almost tapped to senior Janice Montana. She looked as if she didn’t expect the pass, hesitated and threw the ball up as she buzzer went off. It was a real shot — not a prayer — and went right in, and it was a killer.
“It was one of those plays that just takes the wind out of your sails,” Starkey said. “I thought we did a good job defending on that play. It even was a contested three. It kind of stunned us. The next few possessions, we didn’t execute offensively very well. It’s just a natural reaction when something like that happens. You think you’ve done a great job and then out of nowhere comes a haymaker.”
Kent State had a chance to tie the game in the last 30 seconds, but Toledo’s Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriet blocked a Lurken three-point shot (I don’t remember that happening before all year). KSU got the ball right back on a turnover. But after a timeout, the Flashes couldn’t get the ball inside to Jordan Korinek and couldn’t get the ball outside to Lurken. Finally Megan Carter took a three-point shot that missed with two seconds to go. Toledo was fouled on the rebound and made a meaningless free throw to end the game.
Lurken gets the record — exactly
Lurken’s last basket of the game (if not the season and her career) with 1:19 to go gave her 733 points for the season, one more than Bonnie Beachy’s 35-year-old record. Lurken finished with 25 points, though she struggled with Toledo’s defense in the second half, making 3 of 14 shots. For the game, she made 8 of 25 field goals, 1 of 7 three-pointers, had five rebounds, three assists and a block. She played all but a few seconds at the end of the first half.
Starkey called her season “one of the best in the country.”
“I’m really proud of what she’s been able to do. She’s been a joy to coach.”
- Toledo’s record goes to 23-8. “They’re a really good team,” Starkey said. “Remember their RPI is 59.” That’s second highest in the conference. The Rockets now have won six games in a row. Three of their last four victories came against the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the tournament.
- Kent’s record is 19-12, its best (and first winning season) since 2010-11. In Starkey’s first year as coach, the Flashes won more games than the last three years combined.
- WNIT bids come out after the NCAA field is set Sunday. Five MAC schools made the 64-team field last season, and the league is stronger this year. Eastern Michigan and Ball State won first-round games in 2016; Ohio won games in the first two rounds.
- Carter had a career-high 15 points in 32 minutes. She was 4 of 8 shooting, 3 of 5 on three-point shots and 4 of 4 foul shooting. She had two rebounds and two assists. Carter is a redshirt freshman who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Kent State’s third game last season.
- Korinek had 13 points but was pushed out of her comfort zone in the post by Toledo’s two big physical centers. She only had two rebounds.
- Toledo outrebounded the Flashes 35-28, outscored them in the paint 36-20 and 11-6 on second-chance baskets.
- Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott, who was out with a concussion when Kent State beat Toledo 70-60 in January, had 14 points, four rebounds, three assists and a steal. She blocked two shots, including Lurken’s three-point attempt with 19 seconds to go. Monakana led the Rockets with 15 points. 5-7 guard Mikaela Boyd had 9 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals, including two that she turned into breakaway baskets in Toledo’s winning rally.
- Both KSU and Toledo had 19 turnovers. Kent State scored 24 points off of them, Toledo 17.
Game story from Kent State website, including video highlights.
Game story from Toledo website.
The view from Toledo
Coach Tricia Cullop at the postgame press conference:
“We knew this was going to be a battle, and it was through the end. I could not be more proud of the focus, the determination, and the fact that our kids executed what they needed to do on both ends of the floor in the fourth quarter. I could not be more proud of the defense that we showed to hold them to seven points in the fourth quarter.”
“It was such a physical game. Even the officials as they would run by me said, ‘Well, it’s a difficult game to call.’ I get that because nobody wants to go home.”
“I want to compliment Kent State and Coach Starkey. He’s done a tremendous job with that program. He very much deserved his Coach of the Year honor, and Lurken deserves her Player of the Year. She makes you work.”
“In the third quarter, we were very impatient offensively. We were trying to score within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. In those seconds, I thought Kent State was playing great defense and forcing us to take some bad shots.
“So at the timeout at the beginning of the fourth quarter, I told our team that we need to run our offense through; we need to make them work. When you’re making some of the best shooters on the other team run through screen after screen, they’re a little more tired.”
On defending Lurken
“One of the biggest keys was trying to stay in front of her. We didn’t always do a good job, but we were trying to keep her out of the paint because she’s so good at drawing fouls. I thought our whole team as a collective unit was rotating and trying to take away her drives to the basket.”
“I also thought late in the game she got tired, and some of her shots were short — thank goodness — and we were able to come up with a rebound. I think that we got some kids in and out of the game to keep some fresh legs out there.”
Other tournament scores
No. 8 Western Michigan 67, No. 1 Central Michigan 63.
No. 4 Northern Illinois 72, No. 5 Ohio 71.
No. 7 Buffalo 69, No. 2 Ball State 65.
Game stories on the MAC website. They’re all separate posts and will rotate through on the cover page. Each story has video of the teams’ postgame press conferences and links to the tournament bracket.