The problems for Kent State began prior to the ball ever hitting the hardwood, and they did not subside after the tipoff.
Just minutes before the Mid-American Conference quarterfinal against Ohio University it was announced that star forward Danny Pippen would not be playing for Kent State just a day after he was announced to the all-MAC first team.
Pippen was the third leading scorer in the MAC this season, and his absence cost the Flashes a 19.2 points per game of production.
Four seed Kent State was ejected from the MAC tournament by five seed Ohio in an 85-63 rout, the Flashes’ worst loss of the season.
“That was my decision, that [Pippen] didn’t play,” coach Rob Senderoff said. “He wasn’t available to play, that’s what it boils down to. But that was my decision and I’ll live with it,”
Senderoff would not elaborate on why Pippen, who also did not play in the regular season finale against the University at Buffalo, was unavailable.
When asked if he regretted his decision, Senderoff said “No, no, no, no, no. I regret the outcome of the game. And that’s it.”
Kent State would ask its other players to rise to the occasion, and though several of them played well the Flashes’ seemed out of sorts on both ends of the court.
Ball movement was a struggle from the beginning, as the Flashes had 10 turnovers in the first half.
“We had to play, I don’t want to say perfect, but we had to take care of the ball at a really high level, and 10 turnovers in the first half wasn’t gonna cut it,” Senderoff said.
The offense never seemed to settle in, and Kent State finished with 16 turnovers while shooting 38.5 percent from the field and just 30.4 percent from three point range.
Kent State’s defense showed plenty of hustle, forcing 18 turnovers, but the Bobcats seemed able to score at will, shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc.
“They are an elite offensive team,” Senderoff said. “And I think there was a lot of [us] struggling to score, we were getting frustrated and had some breakdowns that quite frankly you can’t have at this moment in the season.”
Ohio jumped out to a 15-4 lead after seven minutes, and Kent never seemed able to shake off that early deficit, going down by as much as 15 in the first half.
Sophomore guard Giovanni Santiago said the team let that early deficit affect their chemistry and intensity.
“I just think we got frustrated,” Santiago said. “ Especially too early in the first half. They made a run, they went up by 15 and everybody is putting their head down and acting like it’s the end of the world. It’s a long game, we [have] got to keep grinding and find a way to score.”
Santiago blossomed offensively this year, leading his team in assists and shooting 44.7 percent from three point range, the second best in the conference.
But today Santiago struggled shooting the ball, scoring just three points and going just 1-8 from beyond the arc. He still managed to lead the team in assists with five before fouling out late in the game.
Kent State was led in scoring by both junior guard Malique Jacobs and senior forward Tervell Beck, who both scored 16.
Jacobs also had three rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Beck, in what could be his final game (though he does have eligibility remaining) shot far better than the team average, hitting 60 percent from the field, and added two blocks.
The Cleveland native played his best basketball late, averaging 18 points a game in the final three games of the season.
Sophomore forward Evan Bainbridge saw very limited minutes this season until he was tapped to fill in for Pippen last week. Today he started again and finished with eight points, four rebounds and two steals.
Along with Pippen, senior forward Justyn Hamilton also sat out the final regular season game, but he returned today to lead Kent State in rebounds with six. He added three points, all off of free throws.
“[Hamilton] has got to get better, as do all of our guys,” Senderoff said. “We have to look ourselves in the mirror, coaches and players, and say ‘what do we need to do throughout this offseason to be playing [on Friday] next year?”
Ohio moves on to face one seed University of Toledo, which today escaped eight seed Ball State University in overtime, in the semifinals tomorrow.
Kent State returns home with a regular season record of 15-8 (12-6 MAC) and will wait to see if seniors like Pippen, Beck and Nuga will elect to use the additional year of eligibility they were awarded by NCAA COVID-19 protocols.
“There is a lot to learn from this, and lots of work [to do] this off season,” Santiago said. “We gotta be better, just attack this summer and get as much better as you can. Everybody, including myself, I gotta be better, I gotta be a better leader - I gotta be better.”
The semifinal round of the MAC championship begins tomorrow between Toledo and Ohio, with tipoff at 5 p.m.
Owen is sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com.