Senior Alexa Golden and coach Todd Starkey as she leaves Wednesday’s quarterfinals. It’s not likely that it was Golden’s last game; Kent State has a good chance of a bid to the WNIT. We’ll find that out next week. (Photo by Austin Mariasy.)
When Kent State beat Buffalo at the M.A.C. Center Saturday, the Flashes played one of the their best games of the season, the Bulls one of their worst.
In Wednesday’s MAC quarterfinals, Buffalo was back to its top style of play and routed Kent State 85-62.
The Bulls reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament last season and have the 37th best RPI (of 351 Division I teams) in the country this season. In the quarterfinals against Kent, they beat their season average of 76 points, made 50 percent of their field goals (they made 26 percent against KSU Saturday) and held Kent State to 30 percent shooting.
Buffalo (21-9) will play No. 1 seed Central Michigan (25-6) in Friday’s semifinals. Central needed a 3-point shot at the buzzer of regulation to force overtime against No. 9 seed Eastern Michigan, then won 88-80.
Kent State (19-12) likely has at least one more game ahead of it. The Flashes, with an RPI in the high 70s, are a good candidate for the WNIT. When they made that tournament two years ago, their RPI was in the 90s. Announcement of the WNIT field will come Monday, a day after the bracket is set for the NCAA Tournament.
On Wednesday, Buffalo was much better than KSU.
“They’re the most athletic team in the league,” coach Todd Starkey said. “They came out rested and probably a little angry from the game a few days ago.
“Personnel for personnel, if you tell me we’re going to play Buffalo two times in a week, we probably won’t have a great chance of winning both of those games. I’m not sure we have a great chance of winning one.”
He smiled a little ruefully.
“I guess we picked the wrong one to win,” he said.
The game went as many of KSU’s losses have gone this season. The Flashes missed their first four shots. Buffalo made its first five, and KSU was behind 11-0 after three minutes. Kent scored seven in a row of its own to get within four. But Buffalo just extended its lead from there.
“When we haven’t started a game shooting the ball well, we’ve struggled,” Starkey said “They had a great game plan and executed it.
“They have the ability to really disrupt everything you do if they stay disciplined defensively. Some of it has to do with their active hands. And they can kind of flip a switch and take things to a different level defensively.”
As for Buffalo’s offense, KSU guard Megan Carter put it this way:
“They were just getting good looks, and they were converting.”
Buffalo made 26 of 52 shots from the field, 7-of-16 from three-point distance and 26-of-30 from the free-throw line. The Bulls had 17 assists, led by sophomore Hannah Hall’s five.
Hall had started the first 22 games of the season. When she struggled in February, coach Felisha Legette-Jack tried bringing her off the bench. Hall played just eight minutes against Kent State Saturday.
Wednesday she played 36 minutes, made 4-of-5 three-point shots and scored 16 points.
As usual, senior Cierra Dillard led Buffalo in scoring, this time with 22 points. That was three points below her average; she’s second in Division I at 25.4 points a game. She also had four assists and three steals.
Carter, Kent State’s leading scorer from the first game of the year, had 19 points and tied a career high with seven rebounds. When she came out of the game with about five minutes to play, she looked exhausted.
“I was just trying to play hard for the team and for the seniors,” she said. “I came with Lex and Mer, then I got hurt my freshman year, so I’m still a junior. We’ve been through a lot — a not-so-great season, a coaching change, then coach Starkey comes in and completely changes the whole culture.
“To get to Cleveland three times is not easy, and I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else.”
“Lex and Mer” are seniors Alexa Golden and Merissa Barber-Smith. Golden had five steals, three assists and five rebounds. Barber-Smith blocked two shots and had five rebounds.
Starkey took one more opportunity to praise his seniors.
“Those kids gave me everything,” he said. “They didn’t have to trust me. I didn’t recruit them. But they did….they just trusted us. They wanted to win.
“They both mean a lot to me, and they both have been through a lot in different ways. They’ve been able to really set the tone. I cannot think of two better players to set the foundation for where we want to go. They’re great role models for our younger players. They kind of fostered them along and get them to where we need to go.”
Starkey didn’t promise in so many words to be back in Cleveland but certainly sounded upbeat.
“I think we have great things ahead of us,” he said. “I’m really proud of our freshmen. We threw them into the fire; their first games were against North Carolina and N.C. State. We’ve had our ups and downs, but they’ve battled through and had good success late in the season.
“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.‘ And for all of our underclassmen, this isn’t a final defeat. I’m really pleased with where we’re headed.”
Golden the wounded warrior
Senior Alexa Golden had ice packs on practically every joint in her body as she walked out of the locker room Wednesday.
Golden has been playing hurt the second half of the season and, indeed, for most of her career.
Wednesday she went down hard as she stole the ball in the first quarter. She ran down the court favoring her right arm and came out of the game for about a minute-and-a-half.
Then she returned and played on until Starkey emptied the bench in the last five minutes.
“Her shoulder has been bothering her for a few weeks now,” the coach said. “As of a week ago, she was having trouble just lifting her arm up.”
(Golden didn’t even hold her framed jersey above her head at Senior Day.)_
“She aggravated that today, and she was really struggling to be who she is,” Starkey said.
Golden, he said, “probably is the all-time leader in NCAA history in ice bags used over four seasons.”
The view from Buffalo
In the postgame press conference, Buffalo coach Legette-Jack, Hall and Dillard praised Kent State as a “great team” but said the key to the game was focusing on what the Bulls were doing.
Hall: “On defense, we locked in. We set that tempo. We dictated where we wanted them to go. We knew their personnel very well, and the way we communicated on defense tonight compared to the way we did last week — and even in most of our other games — was amazing.
“I think we haven’t shown what we can do yet. This is a really special and very skilled group. When we come together, it’s something amazing.”
Dillard: “When you have your teammates firing on all cylinders like today and just playing their roles, it was easy just to be myself and play the flow of the offense.”
Legette-Jack: “I think I have one of the most special players in the country (in Dillard), and in order for her to be seen the way she should be, we have to play a lot more basketball. She’s done so much for Buffalo and for me. I want to continue to give back to her by letting the world see why I’m so happy every day. ”
- The 33-point margin of defeat was Kent State’s worst of the season. Previous widest was a 17-point loss to North Carolina State, which is 26-5 and ranked 10th in the country.
- Freshman Lindsey Thall was the only KSU player besides Golden to score in double figures. She had 12 with two three-point baskets and a blocked shot. (She leads the MAC in both categories.)
- Everyone else struggled. Barber-Smith had six points, which is above her average. But freshman Asiah Dingle went 1-for-7 shooting and five points. She had six turnovers. Golden took only two shots and didn’t score. Neither did junior Ali Poole, who averages more than nine points a game. Freshman Hannah Young had seven points, her most since Dec. 31, in 11 minutes.
- The Flashes made 18-of-60 shots — eight more attempts than Buffalo had. They were 5-of-20 on 3-pointers.
- At one point, the specialty statistics were overwhelming in Buffalo’s favor. They ended closer: in the paint, it was Buffalo 32-22; off turnovers Buffalo 19-13; on second chances, Buffalo 6-5, and off the fast break, Buffalo 13-9
- Buffalo out rebounded Kent State 39-29. The Bulls committed 11 turnovers, Kent State 14. The Flashes had just nine assists, but they made only 18 baskets.
All of the higher-seeded teams won.
- No. 1 Central Michigan (25-6) 88, No. Eastern Michigan (14-17) 80 in overtime.
- No. 4 Buffalo (21-9) 85, No. 5 Kent State (19-12) 52.
- No. 3 Miami (23-7) 72, No. 6 Toledo (20-11) 54.
- No. 2 Ohio (26-4) 72, No. 7 Northern Illinois (19-13) 56.
Central and Buffalo play at 11 a.m. Friday in the semifinals. Miami and Ohio play at 1:30 p.m. Broadcast is on ESPN+.
Finals are at 11 a.m. Saturday on the CBS Sports Network.