It was ugly, hard-fought, hard-won and certainly improbable on many levels.
But Kent State escaped Eastern Kentucky Tuesday with a 65-57 overtime victory and a 6-3 record.
Most improbable, perhaps were the Kent State heroes, point guard Naddiyah Cross and back-up center Merissa Barber-Smith. Cross hit a three-point shot with five seconds to go to send the game into overtime and had a career-high 19 points. She had been averaging five points a game.
Barber-Smith, the 6-4 junior center, had or equaled career highs in rebounds (15), points (9), blocks (4) and minutes (25). She was playing in relief of Jordan Korinek, KSU’s leading scorer, who tied season lows of 10 points and 21 minutes and fouled out with two minutes to go.
“If Merissa doesn’t come off the bench and play great defense, we certainly don’t win,” coach Todd Starkey said in his postgame interview on Golden Flash Radio. “We didn’t play well. I didn’t think Northern Kentucky played particularly well.
“We were out of rhythm all night. it was like we were running in mud, but the last the last three or four minutes of the fourth quarter we dug in and we got some stops. And Naddiyah buries a three, and we go to overtime. I think we just felt like we had a new life, and we finally start playing defense in overtime.”
The Flashes outscored Eastern Kentucky 24-8 over the last 4:40 of regulations and the five minutes of overtime. They outscored the Colonels 9-0 in the first four minutes of overtime.
So let’s look at some of the strange things that either led to the win or that Kent State managed to overcome:
- Eastern Kentucky missed five free throws in the last two minutes. The Colonels had made six of seven in the game before then. They had made 64 percent on the season.
- Korinek scored 11 points below her season average. Second leading scorer Ali Poole had four points, six below her average. Fourth leading scorer Alexa Golden had two, seven below her average.
- Kent State’s bench outscored Eastern Kentucky 19-2. KSU reserves had outscored opponents only twice this season and then only by three points. They had no more than eight points in five of their seven previous games. Besides Barber-Smith’s nine points, Tyra James had seven, all in the second quarter. It was her highest total of the season in her most playing time — 19 minutes.
- KSU took only 10 foul shots, making eight. Eastern Kentucky make nine of 15. The Flashes had averaged 25 free-throw attempts a game. They had been outscored at the foul line only once before this season, and that was by No. 18 Stanford.
- Cross was the team’s third option on the three-pointer that sent the game into overtime. Both McKenna Stephens and Poole had shot at least 13 more than she had this season, and both had made a higher percentage. The Flashes’ best three–point shooters — Korinek and Golden — had fouled out.
Here’s how Cross described the play:
“We had play drawn up, and (Eastern Kentucky) did a great job covering all the spots. So it was my shot, and luckily it went in.”
Did she know it was good when she shot it?
“All I was thinking about was the next play, where I could crash, where it might bounce if it does miss, how we would get back on defense if it did go in.”
The Flashes got back on defense with five seconds to go. Eastern Kentucky’s Shay Solomon drove into the lane and shot from about nine feet.
Barber-Smith blocked it with one second left.
“I looked at the time, and I looked at how fast she was coming,” Barber-Smith said. “There wasn’t enough time for her to get a layup, so she’d have to take a jump shot. So I had to get close enough to block it but not so close I would foul her. I could see her looking straight up, so I watched her eyes. And when the ball was released, I just hit it.”
Cross was guarding Solomon as she raced down the court.
“(Barber-Smith) yelled she was behind me, so I let (Solomon) drive. I was like, ‘Don’t foul,’ and I was so happy she blocked it.”
Five minutes earlier, it looked as if Cross wouldn’t even be able to finish the game. Her knee buckled as she drove to the basket and was called for a turnover. KSU’s trainer helped her off the court. After her knee was checked out and she rested for a few minutes, she was jogging behind the bench to test it, then headed back in. Cross said the knee was “just a little hyperextended.”
Game story from the KSU website.
Game story from the Eastern Kentucky website.
- KSU had three players in double figures, with Stephens (11 points) joining Cross and Korinek.
- Kent State outrebounded EKU 45-31 and 19-8 in the last quarter and overtime. Golden was second to Barber-Smith with seven rebounds.
- The Flashes made 40.6 percent of their shots, about their season average, and 23.6 percent of their three-pointers. Eastern Kentucky shot 36.8 percent.
- Eight Flashes played at least 19 minutes, by far the most use of players in a close game this season. A lot of that was because of foul trouble to Korinek, Golden and Cross.
- Kent State scored 15 points off of 15 Eastern Kentucky turnovers. The Colonels scored 13 off 17 KSU turnovers. The Flashes had 15 second-chance points to Eastern Kentucky’s five. Barber-Smith had eight of Kent’s 15 offensive rebounds. The Flashes outscored EKU in the paint 32-18.
- Eastern Kentucky (2-5) was led by Abby Wright with 19 points. The Colonels have now lost to four MAC teams — Kent State, Ohio, Bowling Green and Akron.
The Flashes are back at the M.A.C. Center Thursday for their second and last home non-conference game of the season. They’ll play 6-2 Wright State, which lost to No. 23 Missouri by two points and Providence by five. It will be a very tough test.