Merissa Barber-Smith won the opening tip against Akron and was Kent State’s dominant player for the rest of the game with 18 rebounds and nine points. (Photo by Austin Mariasy from the catwalk above the court at the James A. Rhodes Arena.)
Senior Merissa Barber-Smith had just played the best game of her college career, been interviewed on the radio and talked to reporters outside the Kent State locker room.
When she joined her teammates inside, their cheers for her echoed loudly in the hall. They probably echoed at center court of the empty Akron’s James A. Rhodes Arena.
Barber-Smith had a career-high 18 rebounds, equaled a career-high nine points against a Division I team, made a career-best 4-of-5 shots, blocked three shots and played 33 minutes, her most in college.
Her exploits, plus double-figure scoring from four teammates, excellent defense and a powerful overtime performance, made for a 65-55 victory over the Zips Wednesday night.
The win gives Kent State a 10-7 league record and guarantees them a winning season in the MAC with one game to go. The Flashes are 17-11 overall and guaranteed at least a sixth-seed and a home game in the MAC Tournament, which starts Monday. Akron is 7-10 and 16-12.
Barber-Smith’s 18 rebounds tied for the eighth most in KSU history. They were the most since Cici Shannon had 20 in 2015. You have to go back to 1992 for the next most recent player with more than 18.
“When I see that ball in the air, it’s like, ‘It’s mine. No one else is getting that. And if you try to get it, I’m just ripping it out of your arms,” Barber-Smith said. She laughed and pointed to the lump on her nose: “As you can see from the punch.”
“She turned the game for us,” coach Todd Starkey said. “She just cleaned up all the loose change. I mean, 18 rebounds. We couldn’t quite get her the double-double, but she scored in the post for us, which we needed.
“In games like this, when we need toughness, she has it.”
Fellow senior Alexa Golden shook her head and smiled as she talked about Barber-Smith.
“I’ve never seen her play like she has in the past couple of games, especially running down rebounds,” Golden said. “Usually she rebounds in her air space, but she was all over the place, getting all of the rebounds.”
Starkey had praise for Golden, too.
“She played 45 minutes, chasing Megan Sefcik (Akron’s leading scorer) around the court,” he said. “She made just about every shot really tough for her and came up with two really big defensive rebounds in overtime.”
Golden came to the postgame interview with an ice pack as big as a football shoulder pad on one shoulder. She had two more ice bags around both her shins. As the leader of Kent State’s defense, Golden plays so hard that by the end of the season, she’s playing on very sore legs and determination. (Last season her shins hurt so much she barely practiced over the last month but played more than 30 minutes in every game.)
“She’s a whatever-it-takes player,” Starkey said.
Golden and her teammates held Sefcik, who is eighth in the conference in scoring, and seventh in 3-point percentage to 2-of-9 from beyond the arc and 4-of-13 overall. Sefcik scored two points in the first half and had 14 overall.
Golden also had eight rebounds, four assists and three steals and played every minute.
“Even in high school, I’ve always taken pride in being like the best defensive player,” she said. “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I like defense more than offense. I love guarding the other team’s best player and making them take tough shots all game and getting them frustrated.
“I’m happy to do the dirty work. That’s the type of player I am — a blue collar player. I love it.”
During regulation, neither team led by more than six points. They were tied at halftime; Kent led by a point after three quarters. But after Barber-Smith controlled the tip in overtime, the Flashes couldn’t be stopped.
They scored the first 11 points of overtime. Akron missed six straight shots and had two turnovers, one a steal by Golden.
A key play came with 1:24 left when Asiah Dingle drove to the basket and kicked the ball to Lindsey Thall, who hit an open 3-point shot to make the score 59-51.
“That’s a freshman making a read in an overtime game against your archrival, throwing it to another freshman and her knocking down the 3,” Starkey said. “It was pivotal.”
Regulation ended in a flurry of action when Thall put back a miss at the shot-clock buzzer with 15 seconds left to put Kent up 51-48. Then four seconds laster, Akron’s Shaunay Edmonds made a basket and free throw on a closely contested layup to tie the game. The Flashes couldn’t score after holding for the last shot.
“It could have been deflating,” Starkey said. “And I told them, ‘Listen, we get to play five more minutes. Let’s go out there and do our job.‘”
“It’s possession basketball,” Starkey told his team. “You’ve got to guard, give up tough shots, get the rebound and continue to play aggressive offensively.”
The team did what he asked.
“We did a really good job of staying focused and just digging in and being gritty on defense,” Starkey said.
- Megan Carter led Kent State in scoring for the 19th time this season with 19 points. She played 43 of 45 minutes and also had two assists and no turnovers. Thall had 13, Dingle 12 and junior Ali Poole 10 off the bench.
- After struggling to make just 4-of-18 shots in the first quarter, Kent State finished shooting 35 percent, about 2 points below its average. The Flashes were 5-of-21 on 3-point shooting for 23 percent, almost 12 below average. Akron was 19-for-58 for 32.6 percent, about 10 points below average and 8 points under Kent’s defensive average.
- The Flashes won the game off turnovers and second-chance points. They scored 20 points after 17 Akron turnovers and outscored Akron 16-8 after getting offensive rebounds. KSU equaled its season low with 11 turnovers that led to eight Akron points.
- Barber-Smith has averaged 13 rebounds over the last four games, hitting double digits in every one.
- Rebounds overall were even at 43. And as good as Barber-Smith was, Akron’s Haliegh Reinoehl was even better statistically on the boards. She had 20 rebounds.
- Four of Akron’s starters played more than 43 minutes. Sefcik’s 14 points led the Zips. Forward Caitlin Vari had 12.
- The win gives Kent State a half point in the Crystal Clinic Wagon Wheel Challenge, but Akron still leads in the competition 5.5-3.0. Teams get a point for winning head-to-head events — a half point for sports like volleyball and basketball where they play twice.
- Barber-Smith was asked whether she thought it was her best college game. Her lip turned up in a half-smile, and she said: “I have more to play. We’ll see.”
She and Golden will celebrate Senior Day in Kent Saturday afternoon when the Flashes play fourth-place Buffalo at 2 p.m. The Bulls beat KSU in Buffalo 75-66 on Feb. 9.
Other MAC scores
- Toledo (11-6 MAC, 19-9 overall) 70, Eastern Michigan (5-12, 12-16) 67 in overtime at Eastern. The Rockets’ win keeps them a game ahead of Kent in the standings. The Flashes would have to beat Buffalo Saturday and Toledo lose at Central Michigan for KSU to get the fifth seed in the tournament.
- Ball State (3-14, 8-21) 67, Northern Illinois (9-8, 17-12) 64 at Northern. Northern’s loss means the Huskies cannot catch Kent State for the sixth seed.
- Buffalo (12-5, 20-8) 75, Bowling Green (2-15, 9-19) 61 at Buffalo.
- Central Michigan (14-3, 23-5) 88, Western Michigan (4-13, 10-18) 57 at Central.
- Ohio (13-4, 24-3) 70, Miami (12-5, 21-7) 66 at Miami.
Central holds first place at 14-3. Ohio is second at 13-4, Miami and Buffalo tied for third at 12-5. Toledo is fifth at 11-6, Kent State sixth at 10-7, Northern Illinois seventh at 9-8 at Akron eighth at 7-10. Eastern Michigan is ninth at 5-12, Western Michigan 10th at 4-13, Ball State 11th at 3-14 and Bowling Green last at 2-15.
If the tournament started today, Kent State would play Ball State Monday at the M.A.C. Center. The opponent could change, of course, depending on Saturday’s results.