In an arena filled only with the low rumble of fake crowd noise and the squeaking of shoes on hardwood, college basketball returned to Kent State’s campus.
Kent State won a resounding 90-41 victory in their home opener against Point Park University on Wednesday night.
This Kent State team was completely different from the one seen last year. Of the 14 players that saw the floor, only four had even donned the blue and gold in a game before tonight.
That lack of experience caused a slow start for the Flashes, and after seven minutes the game was tied 6-6.
But as the first half wore on, the size and athleticism advantage of Kent State started to take a toll on Point Park, and the Flashes took a 40-21 lead into the half.
“We just struggled in the first half,” coach Rob Senderoff said. “We had a lot of jitters, it seemed like, and I don’t think we really moved the ball the way we needed to. But as the game wore on we got a little bit more comfortable.”
Comfortable is one way to put it, as Kent State would outscore Point Park 84-35 the rest of the way.
Several of Kent State’s new faces came into their own; senior Mike Nuga led the team with 17 points in his first game action. Nuga was with the team last year, but was unable to play because of transfer rules.
He drove aggressively to the basket and shot 50% from the field, but shot 1-6 from beyond the three point line.
“(Nuga is) a really good scorer and he plays very, very hard,” Senderoff said. “I do expect him to do some really good things for us this year.”
Sedneroff added Nuga had been shooting over 40% from three in practice, and that him going 1-for-6 was unusual, describing him as an “elite shooter.”
Kent State’s other leading scorers were also brand-new faces in forward Gabe O’Neal who had 15 points in just 12 minutes on the court. Redshirt freshman guard Jeremiah Hernandez and senior forward Danny Pippen both scored 13.
The Flashes’ dominance was not due to shooting alone but also physicality on the boards, as Kent State outrebounded its opponent 55-28, including 22 offensive boards.
The team’s leading rebounder was senior forward Justyn Hamilton with 14, and he added eight points as well.
Of all the new players who produced, Senderoff said he was most impressed with O’Neal. He said that though the big man played only 12 minutes, his play was hugely impactful for the team.
“You can’t hear anyone, but I heard Gabe the whole time,” he said. “He didn’t play a ton of minutes but he was very productive. But, more importantly, I thought he brought tremendous energy and I thought he uplifted the group.”
O’Neal’s booming instructions on both ends of the court were quieter only than the PA system announcing his points.
Pippen was Kent State’s second-leading scorer last season, and though he had solid production tonight, he shot just 35.7% from the field and went 0-7 from three.
“Danny’s a senior and in a lot of ways our team is gonna go the way he goes,” Senderoff said. “He didn’t shoot the ball very well today, but he had three assists, two blocks, two steals and four offensive rebounds, so he did a number of other things well.”
This home opener came after two aborted attempts to begin the season last week, against Northern Kentucky and Alcorn State. Both potential opponents had COVID-19 testing issues and were unable to play.
Senderoff opened the press conference by thanking everyone who made the game possible, and expressed how happy he was to get his team on the court again.
“To come out and finally get a chance to play against somebody else is really good for our guys,” he said. “Now we’ve got to grow and get better as a group.”
The opportunity to play this game and get back into the flow of basketball can’t be overstated, as Kent State’s next opponent will be a massive step up from Point Park.
On Friday, Dec. 4 the Flashes will travel to Charlottesville, Virginia to face No. 15 ranked perennial contender the University of Virginia.
Owen MacMillan is a sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com.
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