The championship Flashes: Back row KSU President Beverly Warren, assistant coach Fran Recchia, deputy athletic director Casey Cegles, trainer Emily Moran, assistant trainer Hannah Gawor, junior Jordan Korinek, senior Lacey Miller, sophomore Merissa Barber-Smith, sophomore Tyra James (who missed the season with an injury), junior Zenobia Bess, sports performance coach Rhen Vail, director of basketball operations Alison Seberger, coach Todd Starkey. Second row (starting in front of Korinek) freshman Megan Carter, senior Keziah Lewis, sophomore Paige Salisbury, sophomore Taylor Parker, freshman Ali Poole. Front row senior Larissa Lurken, senior Chelsi Watson, junior Naddiyah Cross, senior McKenna Stephens, sophomore Alexa Golden, assistant coach Morgan Toles. (Photo from KSU website.)
Sometimes magic happens.
For three years, I’ve written that the way a winning season could happen for the Kent State women’s basketball team was for everything to fall in place.
It happened this year. The Flashes, picked last in the MAC East after a 6-23 season, won the division and finished 19-13.
Pick your adjective: Surprising, certainly. Stunning, yes. Miraculous? Maybe a little much.
So let’s call it magic.
This is the wrap-up column I hoped to write after the women’s season ended with a 67-60 loss at Michigan in the WNIT. But I immediately came down with the flu the day after I returned from Ann Arbor, then went out of town.
Numbers and analysis from Kent State’s special season.
In the end, those are the most important numbers — the team’s best won-lost record and first winning season in six years.
The most ever for a first-year head coach at Kent State. The season has to start and end with head coach Todd Starkey, who brought a new system and preached a new attitude when he arrived in April. Here are first-year records for the five other KSU head coaches: Judy Devine (5-6 in 1975-76). Lauren Wartluft (15-6 in 1977-78). Richard Keast (15-13 in 1986-87). Bob Lindsay (5-22) in 1989-90). Danny O’Banion (3-27 in 2010-13).
Improvement from last season (6-23) to this (19-13). Best I can tell, that’s third best in Division I. The most I found was plus-14 wins: New Hampshire (26-6) and Central Florida (21-12). That’s the most improvement in Kent State history, though not in the MAC; Ohio went from 9-21 in 2013-14 to 27-5 in 2014-15. In RPI, Kent State jumped 219 spots — from 318 in 2015-16 to 99 this season, That was best in the country. RPI is based on a team’s record, its opponents’ record, and opponents’ opponents’ record.
The Flashes’ outright MAC East title was their first since 2002-03, which was the last of six divisional championships they won in a row. They tied for first in 2004-05. Their other championship came in 1995-96, before there were divisional titles.
Kent State’s strength-of-schedule ranking, by far its toughest in five years. So the Flashes won more — many more — games against tougher competition. Six teams Kent State played made the NCAA tournament: Baylor (33-4), Robert Morris (22-11), Western Kentucky (27-7), Florida Gulf Coast (26-9) and Toledo (25-9). Seven more made the WNIT: Michigan (28-9), Central Michigan (23-9), Wright State (25-9), Ball State (21-11), Iowa (20-14), Northern Illinois (21-12) and Ohio (22-10).
Kent’s strength of schedule was second highest in the MAC to Toledo, which was 86 (of 348 teams).
Over the four previous years, KSU’s schedule strength was 199 (2015-16), 153 (2014-15), 190 (2013-14) and 298 (2012-13).
Schedule strength is from WarrenNolan.com, the website I use for RPI rankings.
9.6 more points
The added number of points per game Kent State scored this season compared to last (61.4 to 71.0). Starkey came to Kent State preaching defense, and team defense did make a difference. But he also brought a faster-paced offense, and scoring — at least statistically — was the biggest difference between last year and this year.
9.6 more points
The added number of points per game Larissa Lurken scored this season (13.9 to 23.5)— exactly the increase in team scoring. Starkey’s coaching may have been the biggest difference this season, but without Lurken’s scoring, the team would still have been well below .500. The coach set up the system. But the senior guard bought into it, led her teammates into it, and thrived in it. The Starkey-Lurken combination meant more than either of their individual contributions.
What Lurken scored this season, breaking Bonnie Beachy’s 36-year-old single-season record by 20 points. It’s 112 points more than any Kent State man ever scored in a season. (Antonio Gates holds the men’s record at 640, set in 2002-03.) Lurken’s record 23.5 point-per-game average also beat the men’s record (23.4, set by Dan Potopsky in 21 games in 1954-55.)
We can easily argue that Lurken’s year was the best season ever had by a Kent State player, male or female. See details in post below.
Games Kent State lost that it should have won. One of the amazing things about this year’s team is that it never lost a game it was favored in. The only argument could come over its MAC tournament loss to Toledo, in which the Flashes were seeded third and Toledo sixth. But Toledo actually had a better record and RPI than Kent State. The difference in seeding was because of KSU’s 70-60 regular-season win over the Rockets. That win came in Kent and without Toledo’s having one of of its best players (guard Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott, out with a concussion). The tournament game was a toss-up. Kent lost by four, and Toledo went on to win the championship. All of its tournament victories were by a bigger margin than its win over Kent.
Every other game Kent State lost was to a team with a better record at the time. (Well, Detroit was 1-2 and KSU 2-1 when they played, but Detroit had a much better record the previous season. And the game was in Detroit.)
KSU beat teams with a better overall record five times. It would be seven if you count Florida Gulf Coast (26-9) and Wright State (25-9). Both teams had a worse record than the Flashes at the time the teams played but finished with a better record.
Kent State’s record when it held opposing teams under 70 points. So it’s clear that Starkey’s emphasis on defense was successful when the Flashes executed. The Flashes allowed 64.2 points per game in their 19 victories and 80.2 points per game in their 13 losses.
MAC games when the Kent State’s margin in free throws was greater than its margin of victory. In five key wins — two over Ohio, Buffalo, Toledo and Western Michigan — KSU made 15 more free throws on average then its opponents. The Flashes won their other five games by an average of 17 points, so foul shooting was pretty much irrelevant to those. In the MAC, Kent State made 20 of 26 free throws a game on average. Opponents averaged 12 of 17.
Added points per game from Jordan Korinek, McKenna Stephens and Megan Carter in conference play. The Flashes were a .500 team in non-conference play, with Lurken dominating their scoring. They were eight games above .500 in MAC play. Korinek’s average with from 11 to 18.2, Stephens from 6 to 11.1 and Carter from 3.5 to 7.
In the “keys to the season” post I write early every season, I listed six things KSU needed to do to reach a .500 season. The Flashes surpassed four of them. They were:
- Average more than 67 points a game. (They averaged 71).
- Get scoring from players besides Lurken. (Korinek, Stephens and Carter, as noted above.)
- Win on the road. KSU was 7-7 away from home; a year ago the Flashes were 0-13.
- Believe they could win. They won their last seven regular season games.
The two keys they didn’t meet were almost meaningless. They were:
- Hold opponents below 67 points a game. Their defensive average was 70.2. But the offensive improvement more than made up for it.
- Break even on turnovers. They came so close. For the year, their turnover margin was -0.3. For conference pay, it was +0.8. A year ago it was -1.2. In 2013-14 and 2014-15, it was -5.0
By any standard, Kent State exceeded every possible expectation this season.
“An unexpected, wonderful thing,” Starkey said the last week of the season.
Lurken in the huddle (photo from KSU website).
Lurken’s sensational season
The case that senior guard Larissa Lurken’s season was the best in Kent State history — men or women:
She set school records in points, points per game, free throws made and free throws attempted. Her final season statistics were in the top 10 in school history in five other categories: three-point baskets made (64, third highest all time), three-point baskets attempted (188, third), field goals made (204, tied for ninth), field goals attempted (571, second) and minutes played (1,164, second). She wasn’t far off in two other categories: blocked shots (42 — two out of 10th place) and rebounds (214 — 39 out of 10th place).
In the MAC, she was among league leaders in 9 of 13 categories: scoring average (first), rebounding (15th), free-throw percentage (sixth), steals (13th), three-point percentage, 13th), three-point baskets per game (2.0, 10th), blocked shots (1.3, fourth), defensive rebounds (4.8, 14th) and minutes played (36.4, third). Free throws made and attempted aren’t in the MAC season statistics but are in the league record book: she now is first in both. Her point total was fourth highest in MAC history, her scoring average sixth,
In her last game, she broke the NCAA Division I record for most free throws made in a season. Her 23.5 scoring average for the season tied her for fourth in the country this year.
In her career, Lurken scored 1,663 points, seventh most in school history. She holds the Kent State career record for three-point shots made and taken. She is fifth in the record books for career free throws made and attempted. She made 93 more free throws and took 78 more free throws this season than her three previous seasons combined.
That’s just numbers. Both Lurken and Starkey said many times that her defense was much better this season. And the intangibles she brought to the team — the only senior starter, the leader, the go-to player and a key person who bought into Starkey’s system early — were every bit as important.
And, oh, Lurken was also a second-team academic all-American (3.72 GPA in nursing).
Will her No. 3 ever be retired? Beachy is the only KSU woman whose jersey hangs at the M.A.C. Center. Starkey, I know, wants to retire more eventually. Amy Sherry and Dawn Zerman — both of whom had three outstanding seasons — are probably next in line. Lindsay Shearer and Tracy Lynn had outstanding careers. All four of those players had at least two years significantly better than Lurken’s sophomore and junior years. But none had a senior year as good. None, I think, meant more to her team in a season than Lurken did this year.
Final Kent State season statistics.
Final MAC statistics.
Final NCAA statistics.