Jalen Sullinger GWU

Freshman guard Jalen Sullinger moves the ball down the court in the Kent State men's basketball win over George Washington University in the Naples Invitational in Naples, Florida. 

It’s not often that a basketball team gets to play for a championship in November.

But that’s exactly what the Kent State men’s basketball team will do Wednesday after it beat George Washington 77-69 in the semi-final round of the Naples Invitational in Naples, Florida.

“Whenever you get a chance to play for a championship, it’s fun,” coach Rob Senderoff said. “It’s not easy, but it’s a lot of fun. We’re excited for the opportunity and feel great about being in this position right now.” 

KSU defeated James Madison University 74-69 in the first round of the tournament on Monday.

Kent State improves to 3-1 this season. George Washington falls to 2-5. 

The Flashes fell behind early Tuesday as GWU jumped out to an 11-3 lead to start the game.

Kent State stormed back with a 14-0 run. The comeback was headlined by KSU’s bench. Freshman guard Jalen Sullinger scored five points during the run, and redshirt junior forward DJ Johnson sparked the comeback with a three-point bucket. 

“In games past, we’ve really struggled when [the bench] have gone into the game,” Senderoff said. “We started off with big leads and then we struggled. When they went into this game, they turned the game for us. Those guys off the bench were awesome for us, and it was a big, big difference in the game.” 

The Flashes had 16 bench points, their highest total of the season excluding their dominant 84-38 win over Division III Oberlin College.  

Johnson, a transfer from Rhode Island, scored nine points, all on three-pointers, and Sullinger scored seven, both their highest totals of the season. Johnson also had a season-high five rebounds. 

“Both of those guys played with tremendous energy,” Senderoff said. “They contributed on the defensive end first in trying to move the basketball. In doing that, they were able to get some open shots and contribute in that way. Both are really good shooters. And I think as long as their mindset is to come in and rebound and defend, they'll get some shots and they'll get good ones.” 

All of their points occurred in the first half. 

Kent State scored another eight unanswered points in the first half, and went into halftime with a 33-26 lead. 

KSU’s defense held the Colonials to a 40.9 field goal percentage in the first half, and continued their outstanding three-point defense as GWU went 1-of-9. 

The Flashes have allowed a three-point percentage of 23 this season. 

Kent State came out hot to start the second half, outsourcing the Colonials 17-7 in the first four minutes. 

GWU would slowly come back into the game, and it was only down six points with around six minutes left in the game. 

Redshirt junior guard Sincere Carry would score eight straight points, including two three-pointers, to put the Flashes ahead by 14.

But similar to James Madison in Monday’s game, George Washington would not go away without a fight.

The Colonials went on a 10-0 run to pull within four points with 47 seconds left in the game.

Redshirt sophomore guard Giovanni Santiago was fouled, and he sank his first free-throw attempt to put KSU up by five. Santiago missed his second attempt, and George Washington had a chance to get the ball back with 40 seconds left. But redshirt junior guard Malique Jacobs got the rebound off of the missed free throw and laid it up to put the Flashes up 76-69.

GWU missed a three-point attempt, and Jacobs drew a foul after receiving the defensive rebound. He made his first free-throw attempts and, although he missed his second attempt, had iced the game for Kent State. 

Senderoff said the game “got a little closer than it needed to.”

“But our guys stuck together,” he said. “We made the plays we needed to. We’ve got good guards. And when you have good guards, you get a chance to close out some games. Credit to George Washington, they kept fighting and made some big shots there.” 

Jacobs had 12 points and team highs in rebounds (seven) and assists (seven). He shot 50 percent on field goals and went 4-of-6 on free throws. 

Senderoff called Jacobs a “swiss army knife.”

“He fills the stat sheet in so many different ways,” Senderoff said. “He defended their best offensive player and held him below what he normally does. Just a really good overall effort by him, which is what our team needs and what we've come to expect from him.” 

Carry, who came into the game as the team leader in points, had a team-high 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. He went 6-of-11 from the field and 4-of-6 on three-pointers. 

“I said this when the season started, people didn’t know who [Carry] was around Kent,” Senderoff said. “By the end of the year, people are going to be talking about him as being one of the best forwards to play here. He does a little bit of everything. He scores, he passes it, and he’s a really good defender. He made big play after big play. And that’s what great players do.” 

KSU had seven different players who scored seven or more points. 

The Flashes had a season-high 17 assists, a stat they have improved with each game since only having eight in its season opener against Xavier. 

After Kent State’s win on Monday, Senderoff said that the team needed to cut back on turnovers, which it had 18 of.

Tuesday the Flashes had 11, and GWU only scored six points off of them. 

Senderoff said Kent State was much better in the turnover game.

“When you have the guards we have, you should be able to take care of the ball,” he said. “We should be in the positive in the turnover rate. Tonight we did. As long as we continue to do that, it’ll give us a chance in each game.”

The Flashes will play in the tournament championship Wednesday at 8 p.m., with their opponent being the winner of the Missouri State-East Tennessee State game currently in progress. Missouri State is favored by seven points. 

Senderoff said the team just has to continually get better. 

“That’s really the goal,” he said. “Each game we just try to improve a little bit and learn. Win or lose tomorrow, this experience is really, really going to help us as a group. Tomorrow we're playing for a championship, we'll have all hands on deck. We got to play as hard as we can tomorrow night and find a way.”

Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at joswald9@kent.edu.

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