The Kent State men’s basketball team was down 67-66 with just 25.6 seconds left to play in the fight for the Wagon Wheel.
The tension in the air of the M.A.C. Center was heavy as coach Rob Senderoff called a timeout and drew up an isolation drive for senior guard Antonio “Booman” Williams.
Williams took the ball down the right alley and got free, rolling the ball towards the rim.
The ball bounced off the outside of the rim, but fell into the waiting hands of senior forward Philip Whittington, who tipped it in to give the Flashes a 68-67 lead.
There was only one problem; there was still time on the clock.
It was now University of Akron coach John Groce’s turn to draw up a play, and he had 14.1 seconds to try and call a winning play of his own.
Akron (16-6, 6-3 Mid-American Conference) got the ball to its own stud guard, Lorn Cristian Jackson, but the Flashes (16-6, 6-3 MAC) were ready and forced him to kick the ball out to Channel Banks who launched a three.
Banks launched his shot and it sailed to the rim, where it would clatter off to the right as the buzzer sounded.
The gold-clad crowd erupted and the Kent State bench charged onto the court the Flashes beat their rivals from “The School Down the Road” 68-67 at home.
Whittington has had tremendous games this season while also trotting out some lackluster performances and is currently struggling with back issues.
But in the critical moment of a critical rivalry game, the senior leader rose to the challenge.
Senderoff could think of just one word for Whittington’s play, “big.”
“I am happy for him,” he said. “He needed that because he has struggled a little bit. That was huge, I am really happy for him and his teammates were really happy for him because Phil is a team guy.”
Whittington scored 11 points and had six rebounds in just 23 minutes of playing time.
He had been on the bench for several minutes just before the game winning bucket, but Senderoff said there was no hesitation about putting him back in.
“No, no, no. Not with Phil Whittington,” he said.
The game was a nail-biter down the stretch, but it did not start out that way, as Akron came out hot and immediately took an 8-0 lead.
Responding for Kent State was junior forward Danny Pippen, who hit a pair of 3-pointers to keep his team in the game.
“I was just trying to come up big for the team,” Pippen said. “I wasn’t trying to let us… dig ourselves a deep hole. Them 3’s kept us in the game and then my team just picked me up and started performing and we just took over.”
His teammates would contribute, but Pippen led them all game en route to a 20-point, 12 rebound double-double, his fifth of the season.
Pippen’s renewed production after a slight slump has been one of the keys to the Flashes three game win streak at the midway point of MAC play.
“I’m just trying to go hard,” Pippen said. “What y’all are seeing right now is the rewards because I’m in the gym every day. I try to outwork everybody. ... and can’t nobody stop me from getting to the rim.”
Another key driver in the Flashes’ win against Akron as well as their renewed success was “Booman” Williams.
Williams had 17 points as well as five rebounds and three assists, but likely more important than any of that was his role as a leader on the team.
“When we huddled up before the game I told them it’s gonna be a dog fight,” Williams said. “Nobody wants to lose, so everybody is gonna go hard. Sometimes things don’t go your way so when things do go our way we gotta stick together and play as a team.”
When they were down eight early, Williams reminded his teammates they had come back from worse and to keep fighting.
Williams followed his own advice and fought as hard as anyone, defending Loren Cristian Jackson for almost all of the second half.
Jackson was Akron’s leading scorer, but he was slowed down once Williams told the coaches to keep him on Jackson.
“I took it personal that I was gonna step up and I was gonna be the one to guard him,” Williams said. “I told the coaching staff ‘I don’t want anybody else to guard him, I got him’ and I was just gonna play until I couldn’t play no more.”
The defense as a whole followed Williams’ example and made the difference in the second half.
Senior guard Troy Simons made a crucial block late to go along with his 11 points, as well as grabbing two steals.
Sophomore guard Anthony Roberts led the team with with four steals.
Roberts had a quiet night shooting, scoring only three on 1-7 shooting, but those steals led to crucial points and his defense as a whole was tough to beat.
“We did a great job, for the most part, keeping them off the 3-point line and limiting their attempts,” Senderoff said. “Really in the end that is probably the difference in the game.”
The difference in the game was minuscule, as both Senderoff and Groce emphasized how close fought the game was.
Groce said against a team like Kent, the margin of error is very slim.
Kent State is now 6-3 in MAC play in response to its three game skid, and is tied with Akron for second place in the MAC East.
Both teams are two games behind Bowling Green State University, which is on an eight game win streak following its MAC play opener against Kent State.
The Flashes stay at home to face Ball State University on Feb. 4.
Contact Owen MacMillan at email@example.com.