Jaylin Walker entered the M.A.C. Center Friday to a raucous applause. When he got to center court, coach Rob Senderoff handed him a framed copy of his jersey as a part of Kent State’s senior day festivities. After receiving hugs from Kent State Athletic Director Joel Nielsen and Kent President Beverly Warren, the senior lifted the jersey above his hand and rotated around in a circle, quietly acknowledging the applause he was receiving from the Kent State faithful.
It was the last applause he’ll ever receive in the M.A.C. Center.
As fellow seniors Jalen Avery and Akiean Frederick came out for the starting tip and focused their attention on the Akron Zips, Walker and his 1,770 career points sat at the end of the Flashes bench, clad in his warm-ups.
When Avery knocked down back-to-back 3’s halfway through the first half to cut the Akron lead to one, Walker was the first one off the bench to celebrate with him.
When Antonio Williams threw down a two-handed dunk with 13 minutes left, Walker jumped off the bench.
When CJ Williamson knocked down a 3-pointer to give Kent State a 55-50 lead with five minutes left, Walker pointed to his temple with three fingers.
And when Loren Christian Jackson’s half-court heave harmlessly bounced off the court to secure the Flashes’ 68-65 win over Akron, Walker bounced off the bench shared a long embrace with Avery. For the first time in their four years, they had secured a bye to Cleveland for the MAC Tournament.
Their freshman year they were upset by Bowling Green in the first round. Their sophomore year they survived Marcus Keene and the high-flying Central Michigan Chippewas. Last year they snuck past Northern Illinois on a Kevin Zabo buzzer-beater. Now, for the first time in their Kent State careers, they’re headed straight to Cleveland.
In a game that was supposed to a celebration of his accomplishments over the past four years, Walker didn’t play a second. But as he joined Avery and Frederick to ring the victory bell to clinch the Flashes win, none of that seemed to matter.
Postgame Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said that it was “his decision” to not play Walker and declined to elaborate and said he’d decide about Walker’s availability for the MAC Tournament next week. Freshman guard DeAndre Gholston was also suspended on Friday.
The Flashes eked out the win thanks to some late free-throws by Williams, but it was a complete offensive effort that allowed them to beat the Zips.
Phil Whittington scored 21 points off the bench in his best game of the season, Avery compiled 18 points while still not being 100% healthy and Williams totaled 18 points to go along with six rebounds seven assists, three steals and the aforementioned game-clinching free-throws.
Part of the reason the Flashes lost to Akron earlier in the season was because Jaylin Walker laid an absolute egg (10 points on 4-of-19 shooting). Akron coach John Groce said after the game that he made some “changes” when he found out about Walker’s absence, but that it didn’t drastically impact the Zips defensive game-plan.
Walker came into Friday 51 points away from setting Kent State’s scoring record, and a strong showing against Akron would have almost guaranteed Walker would have broken Trevor Huffman’s scoring record. Now, even if Walker plays in the MAC Tournament there’s no guarantee the Flashes will end up playing in enough games for Walker to break it.
In a sense, Walker and Kent State have been a perfect pairing over the past four years. Walker committed to Kent State early in the recruiting process, and while he’s dealt with his fair share of troubles off the court (he’s now been suspended twice this season), Kent State basketball wouldn’t have had the success it’s had over the past four years without him. He’s been a rotation player for the Flashes all four years, and him and Jimmy Hall almost singlehandedly played the Flashes into the NCAA Tournament two years ago.
In a program that’s built around transfers, Avery and Walker’s success as four-year players has been a refreshing anomaly, and for the first time in their careers they’ll finally get the first days of the MAC Tournament off. For Avery it couldn’t have come at a better time, as it’s clear that he’s still nowhere near full health after his earlier season ankle injury.
“I think getting a couple extra days off and playing in one less game is going to be really beneficial for him,” Senderoff said about Avery.
Despite the ankle injury, Avery made the biggest heads-up play of the night when by diving on a loose ball in the waning seconds to keep the Flashes final possession alive; a play that’s indicative of Avery’s style of play over the past four years. While Walker gets more attention in the public eye, he’s been an invaluable asset for the Flashes over the past four years.
When Walker found out about the Flashes were in the four seed after their win over Miami (OH) on Tuesday, he danced his way into the visitors’ locker room in Millett Hall after high-fiving with coaches, a moment of genuine jubilation about what was next for the Flashes.
Now it’s time to wonder if that’s the last time we’ll ever see Jaylin Walker in a Kent State uniform.
Henry Palattella is the sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.