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College Sports

NCAA Tournament: Kent State hopes to continue writing 'incredible story'

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    Kent State teammates celebrate after the Flashes defeated Akron 70-65 in the Mid-American Conference tournament championship Saturday in Cleveland.



Kent State’s countdown to the NCAA Tournament went three, two, one. It was anything but clockwork.

The Golden Flashes beat the teams with the top three seeds in the Mid-American Conference in succession last week to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2008. They will play UCLA in the first round Friday night at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif.

The Bruins (29-4) will be seeded third and the Golden Flashes (22-13) 14th, but the gap in confidence won’t be nearly as wide. Kent State has won nine of its last 10 games, and believes its magical run may not be ending.

“March is about incredible stories. March is about special plays and special times,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said Monday during a phone interview, “and we’re going into the game hoping that we have more of our story to tell.”

If the Golden Flashes can’t reasonably contain high-scoring UCLA, the most compelling part of their narrative may be over. Senderoff said he had never seen a team with six players who average double figures in scoring, as the Bruins do, all those points adding up to a nation-leading 90.4 points per game.

“I know this: We don’t have 90 points on our roster,” Senderoff said, “so we’re not going to be able to win a game where UCLA scores 102 points like they did against USC,” in February.

Kent State features a top-heavy offense, with forward Jimmy Hall and guards Jaylin Walker and Deon Edwin averaging a combined 47.5 points per game. That accounts for 62.3 percent of the team’s 76.9 points per game. No one else on the team averages more than guard Kevin Zabo’s 5.4 points per game.

Senderoff called Hall, a three-time first-team All-MAC selection, one of the best players in school history because of his rebounding prowess — he averages 10.5 per game, nearly twice as many as anyone else on the roster — combined with his ability to score around the basket as well as on the perimeter. Walker is a prolific scorer and Edwin is a 6-foot-3 hybrid guard-forward who can present matchup problems with his strength and athleticism.

The Golden Flashes are brawny on the interior, averaging 14.97 offensive rebounds per game, second nationally behind North Carolina’s 15.79. But they’re not particularly accomplished on either side of the ball, their offensive efficiency ranking No. 169 out of 351 teams, according to analytics guru Ken Pomeroy, and their defensive efficiency ranking is 131.

Kent State’s epic conference tournament run started a week ago on its home court. That’s where the sixth-seeded Golden Flashes outlasted Central Michigan and Marcus Keene, the nation’s leading scorer, rallying from an early 17-point deficit to prevail in overtime. Then it was on to a quarterfinal game in Cleveland, where Kent State toppled third-seeded Buffalo, the two-time defending MAC champion.

The Golden Flashes needed Walker’s floater with 4.1 seconds left to edge second-seeded Ohio 68-66 in a semifinal before Walker scored a career-high 30 points to carry his team to a 70-65 victory over top-seeded Akron in the championship.

UCLA coach Steve Alford said he just happened to watch most of Kent State’s win in the MAC final, not knowing at the time that it would be the Bruins’ next opponent. The Golden Flashes certainly have UCLA’s full attention now.

“They’re very hot,” Bruins shooting guard Bryce Alford said, “which should be scary.”

The site of the first-round matchup will essentially make it a home game for UCLA, though the Golden Flashes don’t seem to care.

“They could have said that the game was going to be on the moon,” Senderoff said, “and we’d be excited to play.”

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