There are so many different stories from Kent State’s game against Wisconsin-Green Bay Thursday night, but the biggest is this:
It was Kent State 64, Green Bay 59 for Kent State’s first WNIT victory ever and first postseason win since 1996. None of Kent State’s players were even born then.
The Flashes advance to the second round of the tournament to play at Butler at 7 p;m. Saturday.
Here are some of the key threads from the game:
- Kent State scored 13 more points than teams averaged against Green Bay, the fourth-best defensive team in the country by some ratings.
- KSU’s was the dominant defense Thursday. The Flashes forced 15 turnovers and scored 12 points off of them. Green Bay was able to take 48 shots, 12 fewer than the Flashes.
- Flashes trailed by 13 points in the third quarter. They scored the last nine points of the quarter and outscored Green Bay 25-16 in the fourth quarter.
- Senior Merissa Barber-Smith, playing in front of her family for the first time in her college career, had 15 rebounds and made two critical free throws in the fourth quarter. Senior Alexa Golden had 11 points, seven rebounds, four steals and three assists.
- Redshirt junior Megan Carter had 21 points, including 12-of-14 free throws, to lead KSU. Freshman Asiah Dingle had 15 points, two assists and two steals. Freshman Lindsey Thall had three three-point baskets in the fourth quarter.
- Carter, Golden, Barber-Smith and coach Todd Starkey agreed it was the team’s biggest win in Starkey’s three seasons at Kent State. For the three players, it was the biggest in their four years as Flashes.
Here’s a great video clip of the KSU locker room celebrations.
The Flashes only made 30 percent of their shots against the tough Green Bay defense. But they did get to the foul line in the second half, and that’s where they won the game.
“We were much more aggressive in the second half,” Starkey said. “We’ve been saying all season that the aggressor has the advantage.”
So the Flashes drove to the basket. Dingle was hard to stop; Green Bay hadn’t seen many guards in the Horizon with her quickness.
“She’s unique,” Starkey said. “She made a couple of those attacking drives to the basket and got the basket. She got a high level of confidence from that. And when she does that, she gets better on the defensive end. And the team feeds off of that.”
Carter got to the foul line six times in the third quarter and eight in the fourth. She made 10 of those shots.
“I knew I wasn’t shooting well,” she said, “so I wanted to get to the free-throw line and make sure my mechanics were good when I got there.”
What about the mechanics?
“I’m not thinking. I just go through my routine. Three dribbles, look at the basket and shoot it. It’s muscle memory.”
Starkey praised Golden, the leader of the KSU defense all season, for the work she did when the player she was guarding didn’t have the ball.
“If you turn your head, they’re going to cut or move,” Golden said. “We really had to play great on-ball defense and play in our gaps and know where our man and the ball was at all times.”
Green Bay made 43 percent of its shots and 54 percent of its 3-pointers, but Kent made the Phoenix work to get the shots off. Green Bay made 4-of-6 from behind the 3-point arc in the second quarter when it took the lead. But it was able to got off only six 3-pointers in the second half.
The Flashes had 10 steals for the game, led by Golden’s four and two from Dingle and Barber-Smith.
Green Bay tried to pound the ball to 6-3 senior Madison Wolf against Barber-Smith in the fourth quarter. Kent’s center picked up a couple of fouls and tried a different tactic.
“I thought that when she gets the ball and turns around, she’s just going to try to bulldoze her way to the basket,” Barber-Smith said. “So I will put my hands up and just see how it goes. Maybe she’ll make it, maybe she won’t. And I’m getting the rebound if she doesn’t.”
BARBER-SMITH got a ton of rebounds — 15. Over the last month, she’s averaged more than 13.
“I wasn’t shooting much today,” she said. “But I’m going to provide rebounds no matter what. And we needed those rebounds.”
Starkey said Barber-Smith made a huge difference.
“Merissa did a great job of offensive rebounding and kicking it out,” he said “I can think of four or five possessions in the second half when she got an offensive rebound and saved a possession.”
Kent had five second-chance points. Green Bay had zero.
Barber-Smith is from Madison, Wisconsin, which is about two hours away from Green Bay. Because the trip from Madison to Kent is so far, her family had never seen her play.
Playing in front of them “really, like, burned fire in my heart,” she said.
And what did they say?
“Oh, you’re so great. We’re so happy you came out here. We love you, dude.”
GOLDEN, as it seems every game, went to the floor hard on a rebound in the first half and lay on the floor for 30 seconds. She popped up and jogged off the court, went to the locker room briefly and came back for the fourth quarter.
“That was a little harder than usual,” she said. “I’ll probably be sore, but it’s fine. We got the win. That’s all I care about.”
“Defensively, they are just so physical and very difficult to score against,” Starkey said. “The second quarter (when Green Bay outscored KSU 20-9) was obviously proof of that. We needed to be the same way. We needed to make sure that we matched their toughness.”
After trailing 43-30 with 2:14 to go in the third quarter, KSU went on a 9-0 run to end the quarter, then took the lead with about four minutes to go in the game.
“At the last media timeout (about 30 seconds before KSU went ahead). we were really loose in the huddle and like, ‘We’re not going anywhere. ‘” Starkey said. “We’re going to play this out to the end.’
“And our players were smiling and really connected. They wanted to win. They were excited about it. They had confidence that they were going to win.
“I wonder if their huddle was a little more tense.”
Golden put it like this:
“We knew the fourth quarter had to be the best quarter that we’d played all year.”
The big plays
Here are seven:
- With 1:29 to go in the third quarter, Thall found freshman Hannah Young in the corner, and Young hit a 3-point shot. “We were really struggling to score at that point,” Starkey said. “And that really kind of broke it open for us.”
- With 14 seconds to go in the quarter, Dingle poked the ball away from the player she was guarding and went three-quarters of the court for a layup and was fouled. That made is 43-39 Green Bay going into the fourth quarter.
- With 4:28 to go in the fourth quarter, Golden fed Thall for a 3-point basket. Carter was fouled as players jockeyed for position for the rebound. She hit both free throws for a five-point play for the Flashes. It made the scored 54-52 Green Bay.
- 30 seconds later, Dingle found Carter open on the left side for the three-point basket that put Kent State ahead 55-54. The Flashes never trailed after that.
- 40 seconds after that, Dingle stole the ball in front of the Green Bay basket. Starkey called time while she was sitting on the floor.
- 12 seconds later, Dingle drove to the basket and kicked the ball out to Thall, who hit her third three-pointer of the quarter. “We told Lindsey to loop behind the drive, and she hit the big 3” Starkey said. “She listened. So that’s two freshmen listening and executing down the stretch.”
- And with 1:04 to go, Barber-Smith was fouled after grabbing a rebound with KSU ahead 58-56.
Barber-Smith is not Kent State’s best shooter. She was making 44 percent going into the game and had missed two free throws in the first half.
She hit both shots. (“Biggest free throws of her career,” Starkey said.)
“I heard someone say, ‘She doesn’t want these,'” Barber-Smith said. “And I’m like, ‘All right, then’
“So I’m out to the free throw line, and I was imagining myself in practice again while we do those pressure free throws, when we have to run if we don’t make them. I remember for those, I always smile. It like releases the dark energy.
“So I walk the your free throw line, and I start smiling. I’m like, ‘All right, this isn’t so bad.‘ I made the first one. Then I’m like, ‘All right, so these are do it again.’ I shot the second and it went in. And I’m like, ‘Well, okay.'”
- The victory moves Kent State’s record to 20-12, the Flashes’ first 20-win season since 2010-11. They’re now 1-4 in the WNIT.
- Green Bay lost its fifth WNIT game. It has never won, though it has victories in the NCAA Tournament. The Phoenix finish the season at 22-10.
- Kent State committed a season-low eight turnovers. “When possessions are so valuable, you can’t squander the opportunity,” Starkey said.
- Green Bay made four of its last five shots of the first half, including three 3-pointers, to take a 29-21 lead.
- Thall picked up two first-quarter fouls and played only four minutes in the first half. She didn’t commit a foul in the second and played all 20 minutes.
- KSU outrebounded the Phoenix 39-35 and outscored them on fast breaks 6-0. Green Bay outscored the Flashes 26-14 in the paint.
- Attendance was 1,269 in Green Bay’s Kress Center, which is used only for women’s basketball.
Butler (22-9) routed Northeastern 89-72 Thursday. The Bulldogs finished third in the Big East with an 11-7 record. Their RPI is 69 and Omni ranking 67. (RPI focuses on record and strength of schedule. Omni also takes into account wins against good competition, margin of victory and recent record.)
With the Green Bay win, Kent’s RPI increased seven spots to 76 Its Omni ranking was 118 before Thursday’s game.
Driving time to Butler is about five-and-a-half hours. Here are directions to Hinkle Field House, where Saturday’s game will be played. I don’t find ticket prices online.
Butler led the Big East in scoring defense (57.9), field goal defense (36.8 percent), steals (328), and turnovers forced (18.6). Michelle Weaver was the Big East defensive players of the year; Tori Schickel (12.3 points and 8.9 rebounds) was second-team all-conference and coach Kurt Godlevske was Big East coach of the year.
“It’s a challenge,” Starkey said. “But at this time of year, everything’s a challenge. You’re just trying to enjoy the ride.”
Butler had never hosted a WNIT game before Thursday’s meeting with Northeastern.
Kent State’s team bused to Milwaukee after Thursday’s game and was traveling on to Butler Friday. Starkey said assistant coach Morgan Toles had already started on the scout report for the game — just to be prepared. He also praised Allison Seberger, the team’s director of basketball operations, for handling the logistics of setting up travel to Green Bay on two days notice, then starting again for a second trip at 9 p.m. Thursday.
Winner of the Butler-KSU game will play the winner of the game between Cincinnati, which beat Youngstown State 76-62, and the winner of Friday’s game between Minnesota and Northern Iowa.
Other MAC scores in the WNIT
- Toledo 71, Seton Hall 65.
- Western Kentucky 67, Miami 63
- Ohio 81, High Point 74.