KENT, Ohio — With Akron being a team filled with shooters and playmakers, Kent State needed its defense to perform to grab a win.
It was the first meeting against the Golden Flashes’ rival, and a win would help them rise in the Mid-American Conference East division.
As the clock ticked down Friday night, the Golden Flashes led 68-67. The Zips swung the ball to the left wing, and Akron’s Channel Banks, one of the top shooters in the MAC, had a decent look from the 3-point line.
But the Flashes had forced him to shoot just a little farther than he might have wanted, and the shot didn’t go in. The Flashes held on to win 68-67, and with the victory, they moved into a tie for second in the MAC’s East Division at 6-3, 1.5 games behind Bowling Green. Both the Flashes and Zips are 16-6 overall.
The win marked their third straight after losing three straight in the middle of January. As the Flashes continue conference play, this game showed how they can stay in games even after slow starts.
“At halftime, we were fortunate to only be down six,” coach Rob Senderoff said. “I did not think we played well at all in the first half. There was a lot of frustration in terms of we had a gameplan, and there were certain things that we weren’t following. I really thought we were fortunate that we were just down six points at halftime.”
A strong defensive start to the second half helped Kent State rally from a 33-27 halftime deficit. Still, with a lead that ranged from five to seven points during the last 10 minutes, Kent’s defense struggled a bit down the stretch.
Leading 66-65 in the final minute, the Flashes’ Danny Pippen committed an offensive foul. Akron’s Loren Cristian Jackson took advantage with a layup for a 67-66 edge with 25.6 seconds left. But KSU’s Philip Whittington tipped the ball in off a miss from Antonio Williams five seconds later to put the Flashes up for good. Whittington scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds, with five offensive rebounds.
Pippen, the Flashes’ leading scorer, paced the team with his fifth double-double of the season, scoring 20 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Pippen also tied a season-high for made 3-pointers with four. Antonio Williams chipped in with 17 points, five rebounds and three assists.
The 12 rebounds is Pippen’s second-highest mark of the season, with his season-high being 14 in a win against Central Michigan earlier in January.
“As far as rebounds, it was a point in time in the season where I wasn’t really getting enough rebounds that I was supposed to get,” Pippen said. “And the coaches was on me heavy that I need to get back on the glass, so that’s just been it.”
The Flashes had allowed Akron to shoot 37.5% from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes. But the Zips’ offense struggled from the start of the second half. Less than a minute into the half, Anthony Roberts’ steal eventually led to a bucket from Whittington.
With 17:38 left in the second half, Roberts got another steal, which led to a layup and three-point play from Williams.
“It was just basically me sending Loren Jackson to where I want him to go instead of letting him go to where he wanted to go,” Williams said of the Flashes’ improved second half defense. “I had to push up, put some pressure on him and guide him towards the basket instead of letting him just dribble around.”
Jackson came into the game scoring at least 20 points in each of the Zips’ previous four games. He finished with 19 points, the first time since Jan. 14 he didn’t score at least 20.
“I took it personal,” Williams said of defending Jackson. “I took it personal that I was going to step up and I was going to be the one to guard him. I told the coaching staff, ‘I don’t want nobody else to guard him. I got him.’”
The Flashes went on a 14-6 run, going up 50-43 with 12:09 left. While the Zips looked to continue attacking the paint, the Flashes ably defended the passing and driving lanes. The Zips finished shooting 40.0% from the field and 33.3% from the 3-point line.
The Flashes will play Ball State at the M.A.C Center on Tuesday, and the Zips will host Eastern Michigan on Feb. 8.