Seniors Merissa Barber-Smith (22) and Alexa Golden (24) lead their team to the Victory Bell after KSU’s 62-53 over Buffalo Saturday. (Photo by Austin Mariasy.)
Kent State’s defense carried it to an 18-11 record this season.
Senior Alexa Golden has been the heart of the KSU defense for four years.
So it’s more than appropriate that Golden and the Flashes held Buffalo to its lowest point total of the year on Senior Day as they upset the Bulls 62-53 Saturday.
The victory gives Kent State a fifth seed in the Mid-American Conference Tournament, which starts at 7 p.m. Monday with a game against last-place Bowling Green in the M.A.C. Center. KSU finished 11-7 and tied for fifth with Toledo in the MAC and gets the higher seed because it beat Toledo 58-47 in January.
Buffalo finishes the regular season in fourth place at 12-6 (20-9 overall). If Kent beats Bowling Green Monday, Buffalo and KSU will play again in the quarterfinals at Quicken Loans Arena at about 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
“You could tell we were locked in from the jump,” Golden said. “Usually it takes us awhile to get acclimated. But we started fast, we were communicating, we were talking, and we knew what we had to do to win.”
The Flashes had one of their fastest starts of the season, especially against a good team. They forced Buffalo turnovers on its first two possession and raced to a 10-3 lead. Kent State never trailed in the game.
“We had four solid quarters,” coach Todd Starkey said, something has been seeking all season and hasn’t gotten a great deal. “On defense, we did a really good job. It’s been something we’ve been able to rely on all year. The games we’ve lost haven’t been because of defense. It’s lack of offense and poor shooting.
“So it’s nice to have a game like this in your back pocket going into tournament time. The old adage is, ‘Defense wins championships.’ I think you’ve got to have balanced attack — equal parts offense and defense. I think we have the potential to do that. If we shoot the ball on Monday and moving forward, there isn’t anybody in the league we can’t beat.”
Kent State’s defense Saturday held Buffalo’s Cierra Dillard, the second-leading scorer in the country at 25.5 points a game, seven points below her average. Dillard fouled out with 6:15 to go on a major hustle play by freshman Asiah Dingle.
Dingle had missed the second of two free throws, but wiggled her way toward the basket chasing the rebound. Dillard ran into her from behind. KSU was leading 50-46 at the time.
“That was monumental,” Golden said. “That totally changed the tone of the game; they had to play without their best player.”
Golden did much of the defense on Dillard.
“She’s a great player,” Golden said. “We knew she was gong to get hers, and she was going to take 20 shots in the game. It was just making sure those she did take tough shots.”
Golden also had eight assists, a career high and the most for a Kent State player this season.
“Eight assists?” Starkey said when he was told the statistic. “She just continues to amaze me. If she has opportunities to score, she will. But she gets it. She just wants to win.
“My favorite players over 21 years of coaching have always been players who hate to lose as much as I do. She’s got to be on the Mount Rushmore of my favorites. She does everything you need her to do to win basketball games. She doesn’t care about accolades or credit. She takes pride in being known as our toughest player.”
Kent State had 12 assists on 20 baskets, something Starkey called “the stat of the game.”
“We did a really good job of sharing the basketball, moving it and not over-dribbling,” he said.
A number of those assists went to junior Ali Poole, who scored 15 points off the bench. It was the most points she had scored in three weeks.
“I got a couple of really nice passes that kind of led me to the hoop,” Poole said. “And the 3s fell — just one of those days, I guess.”
“She did a really good job of moving without the ball and just taking the shots that were there to take,” Starkey said. “She does a great job of spacing and spreading the floor.”
Poole shared her position with senior Merissa Barber-Smith, who fought foul trouble for much of the night but still had five rebounds and two blocked shots. Starkey alternated them on offense (Poole) and defense (Barber-Smith) much of the game.
Barber-Smith had the most astonishing statistic of the game. She played just 12 minutes, didn’t score a point, and even her five rebounds were below her average. But while she was on the floor, Kent State scored 18 more points than Buffalo did.
Barber-Smith and freshman Lindsey Thall did the bulk of guarding Summer Hemphill, Buffalo’s second-leading scorer and the MAC leader in field-goal percentage at 61.0. She went 0-for-5 Saturday.
Honoring the seniors (and the president)
Golden and Barber-Smith were honored before the game with the traditional framed jersey and a recitation of their accomplishments.
Barber brought her nine-month-old son and boyfriend to the floor with her.
Golden was in tears as she and her parents hugged each other and Starkey.
KSU President Beverly Warren seemed a little teary herself as she accepted a framed picture of her and the team.
Then Golden went out and played 33 minutes.
“The ceremony was over, and the ball went up,” she said. “It was time to play.”
- Buffalo’s 53 points were 24 below its conference average. The Bulls were second in the league in scoring. They made only 13 of 50 field-goal attempts (26 percent). Kent State ranks fourth in the MAC in scoring defense; Buffalo’s total was 12 points below KSU’s defensive average.
- The Bulls were second in MAC turnover margin at plus-2.6. Kent State was third at plus-2.4. But the Flashes got the better of Saturday’s battle, and it won them the game. KSU scored 18 points off of 18 Buffalo turnovers; the Bulls scored eight off of 15 KSU turnovers.
- Kent State held Buffalo scoreless over the last three minutes of the game.
- Referees called 52 fouls in the game — 28 on Kent State and 24 on Buffalo. Dillard and Buffalo’s Finess Dickson fouled out, and three other Bulls and five KSU players had four fouls. The two teams combined to shoot 30 free throws in the fourth quarter and made 25 of them.
- Dingle led the Flashes with 16 points, including 8-of-11 foul shots. Poole had 15 points and Megan Carter and Thall 11. Dillard and Theresa Onwuka each had 18 for Buffalo.
- Thall blocked five shots, the second highest of her freshman season. She is second in the league in blocks. She also had a career-high three assists and played a career-high 39 minutes.
- Kent State outscored Buffalo 22-16 in the paint and 14-10 on second-chance points, even though they were outrebounded 38-30.
- The Flashes made 20 of 52 field-goal attempts for 38 percent, slightly above their average.
- Attendance was announced at 1,731, second highest of the season. It took Kent State’s home average above 1,000 for the first time in at least 12 years.
The MAC Tournament
MONDAY (at campus sites)
- No. 9 seed Eastern Michigan (6-12 MAC, 13-16 overall) at No. 8 Akron 7-11, 16-13).
- No. 12 Bowling Green (2-16, 9-20) at No. 5 Kent State (11-7, 18-11).
- No. 10 Western Michigan ((4-14, 10-19) at No. 7 Northern Illinois (10-6, 18-12).
- No. 11 Ball State (3-15, 8-22) at No. 6 Toledo (11-7, 19-10).
(All games broadcast on ESPN+)
(at Quick Loans Arena in Cleveland)
- No. 1 Central Michigan (15-3, 24-6) vs. Eastern Michigan-Akron winner, noon.
- No. 4 Buffalo (12-6, 20-9) vs. Kent State-Bowling Green winner, about 2:30 p.m.
- No. 2 Ohio (14-4, 25-4) vs. Northern Illinois-Western Michigan winner., about 5 p.m.
- No. 3 Miami (13-5, 22-7) vs. Toledo-Ball State winner, about 7:30 p.m.
(Games start a half hour after previous one ends.)
(All games broadcast on ESPN+)
FRIDAY SEMIFINALS (at the Q)
Friday, March 15th, 2019 — Semifinals
- Central Michigan-EMU/Akron winner vs. Buffalo-KSU/Bowling Green winner, 11 a.m.
- Ohio-NIU/Western Michigan winner vs. Miami-Toledo/Ball State winner, about 1:30 p.m.
(All games broadcast on ESPN+)
SATURDAY FINALS (at the Q)
- Tipoff is at 11 a.m. on the CBS Sports Network.
- Ohio 76, Bowling Green 68 at Ohio.
- Central Michigan 78, Toledo 45 at Central.
- Miami 66, Akron 49 at Miami.
- Eastern Michigan 67, Ball State 57 at Ball State.
- Northern Illinois 74, Western Michigan 71 at Western.
- Kent State 62, Buffalo 53 at Kent State.