The Kent State men’s basketball team trailed Western Michigan University by as much as 11 and could not seem to find its bearings in the first half.
In the second half, though, the Flashes’ shooting came alive. Not from beyond the three-point arc or inside the paint, but rather from the free throw line.
Kent State (13-5, 10-4 Mid-American Conference) would shoot 19-20 from the charity stripe in the second half to beat WMU (4-13, 3-9 MAC) 76-69 in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The Flashes shot 27-29 from the free-throw line on the game, an incredible 93.1 percent. Those extra points were crucial in a physical matchup with one of the best statistical defenses in the MAC.
The first half saw a Kent offense that seemed uncomfortable and out-of-sorts, giving up seven turnovers and struggling to get open shots.
Sophomore guard Giovanni Santiago played the best offensive game of his career to keep the Flashes in the game, scoring 14 in the half while going 4-5 from beyond the three-point arc.
Santiago finished with a career-high 22 points to lead the Kent State scoring attack for the first time in his career.
The Puerto Rican native also played 38 minutes and brought the ball up on almost every possession, but did not have a single turnover.
Playing alongside Santiago at guard was junior Malique Jacobs. Jacobs and Santiago have both blossomed as scorers since the loss of senior guard Mike Nuga, who was lost for the season with a leg injury.
Jacobs led tonight’s crucial free throw category shooting 9-10 from the line. He finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and three steals.
Steals and tough defense were another key adjustment by Kent State in the second half. In the first half the Flashes forced just four WMU turnovers, while in the second they clamped down and doubled that number to 11.
Senior forward Danny Pippen struggled shooting from the field, but came up clutch when Kent State needed him most, draining a contested jumper with 15 seconds left to put the game away.
Pippen shot 4-17 from the field, but was a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line while also grabbing six rebounds.
Fellow senior forward Tervell Beck led Kent State in rebounds with eight despite only playing 16 minutes total. Beck was slow to get up after contesting a ball late in the first half, and would not see the court again.
Senior forward Justyn Hamilton, still recovering from a back injury early this season, was all over the court. Hamilton scored 10 points on 4-5 shooting while also tallying three rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
This win saw Kent State complete a sweep of Western Michigan this season — the first matchup was a much more comfortable 80-54 affair at the M.A.C. Center — and reach 10 conference wins.
10 conference wins places the Flashes firmly in third place in the MAC behind Akron (13-4, 11-3 MAC) and first place Toledo (17-6, 12-3 MAC).
Kent State can virtually assure a trip to the MAC tournament with one more win, and the Flashes will have a chance to do just that on Saturday, Feb. 20 against Eastern Michigan University. The game will take place at the M.A.C. Center at 2 p.m.
Owen MacMillan is sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com.