KSU’s tough, tough opening weekend: North Carolina Friday, N.C. State Sunday

Merissa

Senior Merissa Barber-Smith, KSU’s tallest player at 6-4, will play her first game in almost 10 months Saturday. She missed Kent’s final 17 games last season with a medical issue. Coach Todd Starkey said that Barber-Smith may well start the second game of her career against the tall forwards KSU will see in North Carolina. (Photo by David Dermer from KSU website.)

Kent State’s opening weekend may be the most challenging fn the Flashes’ 44 years of women’s basketball.

The Flashes open at North Carolina, a team that has gone to the Final Four three times, at 6 p.m. Friday. They playat 2 p.m. Sunday at North Carolina State, which is ranked 17th in the country in the preseason Associated Press poll.

Kent State has never opened against two Power Five conference teams before. (A look as some of KSU’s most interesting openers is later in this post.)

The team going to North Carolina is one of the most inexperienced in recent history. The Flashes have only two players who have started more than five games in their careers, though a third  — redshirt junior guard Megan Carter — has played starter minutes off the bench. Carter is the team’s leading returning scorer (10.2 points a game last season).

KSU returns only 35 percent of its scoring from 2017-18.

Two freshmen — point guard Asiah Dingle and forward Lindsey Thall — will start for the Flashes. Two more of their top eight players are freshmen, members of one of the top incoming classes in school history.

KSU coach Todd Starkey has made it clear since he arrived on campus in April 2016 that he likes to play challenging schedules. Still, he sounded uneasy when he talked about the Carolina trip after KSU’s 77-48 victory over Division II Slippery Rock in an exhibition Sunday.

“North Carolina and North Carolina State are really, really good,” Starkey said. “If we’re careless with the ball the way we were in periods tonight, we’ll get blown out. Our athleticism doesn’t match up to either one of them.”

Prepping at Northwestern

To prepare for the Carolina trip, the Flashes had a closed scrimmage at Northwestern of the Big Ten 12 days ago. That’s a seven-hour bus ride for a scrimmage; usually the team plays another Ohio school.

“I was like, ‘I don’t care where we have to go, we’re going to scrimmage a Power Five,’” Starkey said in an interview earlier this fall. “Before they get to Carolina, they just had to be able to see that kind of size, athleticism and ability level so that we’re not shellshocked when we get down there.”

Coaches aren’t supposed to talk about much about closed scrimmates, but I’ve heard that KSU played Northwestern just about dead even. Starkey told me Sunday that the game was low-scoring and that neither team played particularly well. On his exhibition radio interview, he said Thall had a double-double in the game. In my interview, he said that Dingle struggled with eight turnovers.

Northwestern, which is coached by Kent State alum Joe McKeown, was 12-20 last season and finished 12th in the 14-team Big Ten. The Wildcats are predicted to do about the same in the conference this season. But they beat Wisconsin Green Bay 57-55 on the road on Tuesday. Green Bay is consistently one of the top Mid-Major teams in the country and was ranked sixth in this year’s preseason College Insider Mid-Major Top 25.

Northwestern has its top four scorers back from last season, including 6-2 senior Pallas Kunalyi-Akpanah, a member of the 10-player preseason all-Big Ten team.

(The scrimmage was one of the first in Northwestern’s newly renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena, which cost $110 million. “Really, really nice,” Starkey said.)

Kent State will face two successful teams in their opening road trip. North Carolina State was picked to finish fourth (behind No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 5 Louisville and No. 18 Syracuse) in the ACC. North Carolina is picked eighth in the 15-team conference.

All about North Carolina

North Carolina beat Elon, another consistently strong Mid-Major, in its openeter 100-69 on Tuesday. The Tarheels are trying ro recover from three of their most mediocre years in decades — 14-18, 15-16 and 15-16. Injuries played a big role in last season’s struggles.

Healthy now is 5-11 guard Stephanie Watts, who averaged 16.8 points and 7.2 rebounds as a sophomore two years ago but missed last season.

Returning starters include 5-9 senior guard Paris Kea, a preseason third-team all-American who averaged 19.4 points and 4.8 assists last season, and 6-4 sophomore center Janelle Bailey, who averaged 15.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks last season as the ACC’s freshman of the year.

Kea had 17 points, Watts 16 and Bailey 16 in the win over Elon. But the Tarheels were led by 19 points from 5-9 guard Shayla Bennett, a transfer from Gulf Coast State College. There she was the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association junior college player of the year.

North Carolina is trying to get back to an up-tempo style of play they’ve gotten away from because of injuries.

“I think we’re back to being what Carolina women’s basketball has a reputation for,” Hatchell said in an interview with the website Women’s Hoops World. “We’re so different from last year. We’ve come two or three levels.

All about North Carolina State

The Wolfpack went 26-9 last season and lost to lost to national runner-up MIssissippi State in the Sweet 16. N.C. State beat Belmont, another strong mid-major, 77-62 in its opener Wednesday. Belmont is ninth in the preseason mid-major rankings and was 31-4 last season.

North Carolina State trailed Belmont by five at halftime but used a guard-heavy lineup to outscore the Bruins 48-26 in the second half. The Wolfback made 71 percent of their second-half shots, overwhelming on two-point baskets.

Leading scorer was 5-9 redshirt junior guard Grace Hunter, a transfer from UNC-Charlotte. She had 16 points. Kai Crutchfield, a 5-9 sophomore guard, came off the bench to play 31 minutes and score 15 points. The only post player to score in double figures was 6-5 freshman center Elissa Cunane. N.C. State lost pretty much its entire front line to graduation.

One of the Wolfpack’s best returning players was lost before the season started when guard Kaila Ealey suffered a knee injury. She was the team’s leading defensive guard and started all 35 games least season.

Notable Kent State opening games

  • 2007: Lost at St. Bonaventure, 74-68. Team finished season 9-21.
  • 2003: Beat Rice (61-55) and Rhode Island (69-64) in Kent. Final record 19-10.
  • 2002: Lost at Rhode Island (53-39) and at St. Bonaventure (67-44). Final record 16-13.
  • 2000: Beat St. Bonaventure (92-78) and Pittsburgh (77-67). Final record 21-8.
  • 1997: Lost at Virginia 67-54. Final record 23-7.
  • 1996: Lost at Notre Dame 66-41 in preseason WNIT. Final recod 20-10.
  • 1994: Lost at Nebraska 91-66. Final record 17-10.
  • 1993: Beat Arkansas in Kent 86-81. Final record 20-8.
  • 1990: Lost at Kentucky 114-83. Final record 17-12.

(All of those games under coach Bob Lindsay.)

  • 1987: Lost at West Virgina 84-68. Final record 9-19.
  • 1986: Lost at Indiana 73-60. Final record 15-13.

(Games under coach Richard Keast.)

To follow the weekend games

North Carolina

North Carolina State

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