Cleveland-- Kent State senior Omni Smith may have earned Player of the Game honors, but it was a pair of freshman that contributed key minutes in the Golden Flashes 75-66 win over Western Michigan in a Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinals match up at Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday.
Smith scored a team-high 14 points while freshmen Chris Singletary added 12 points and four rebounds and Rodriquez Sherman added 10 points and six boards.
"The thing I was most proud of is they came in relaxed, that's something we talked about with those guys, with everybody," Kent State head coach Jim Christian said. "We've got a lot of guys who have never been here before. You have to have the right mindset and you have to come and just do the things you did to get you to this point. They played within themselves and that's what you have to do this time of year."
Kent State (21-10) got into early foul trouble with Mike Scott and Singletary picking up two fouls each within the first five minutes of the game. That—and an Armon Gates shoulder injury-- led to extended minutes by the Golden Flashes reserves and they didn't disappoint as they outscored Western Michigan's bench, 31-12.
"We had some guys give us some significant minutes tonight, everybody that came in contributed," Christian said. "To win this tournament, guys got to play. It's hard to play three games in three days especially with the intensity level that everybody is playing with."
After falling behind, 15-13, with 13:47 left to play in the first half, Kent State went on a 14-0 run to take a 29-15 lead. Isaac Knight scored six of his eight point during that stretch and Smith hit a pair of three-pointers.
The Broncos (16-16) made a run of their own to cut Kent State's lead to just 38-35 at the half. They then opened the second half on a 10-2 run to take a 45-40 lead, forcing Christian to call timeout to talk to his team.
"During that run we didn't take care of the basketball, we forced a couple things," Christian said. "(I told them) we've got to get back on the game on defense; we're not going to get back in the game in one play. There is no five-point play. There's 14 minutes to go in the game. You've got to play 40 minutes in the MAC tournament every night."
The Golden Flashes responded with key plays by Singletary and Sherman. Singletary hit a jumper to start the run and Sherman cut off what would have been an easy lay-up that allowed the Kent State defense to get in position for a key stop.
"That was a great play," Christian said. "We actually work on that drill; it's one-on-one the length of the floor. He cut the guy off and didn't give the lay-up and then everybody was able to match up. That was a big play; they didn't score."
Kent State increased its lead to 13 points and hit 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
"I really thought we got some key stops and took advantage of them," Christian said. "We turned them over a couple times and scored, we went to the line and stepped up and made them. Once we got it back up there by six or eight that's what I thought the difference was and then we got three huge stops there at the end and that's what you have to do."
With the victory Kent State advances to the semifinals where they'll meet a familiar foe, rival Akron. The Zips already have two wins this season against the Golden Flashes including a 66-64 overtime thriller on Sunday that decided the MAC East championship.