CLEVELAND — It's hard sometimes to find the right words for such an occasion, but "sweet redemption" might suffice.
A year after being humiliated by Akron in the Mid-American Conference Men's Basketball Tournament finals, Kent State took down Toledo Saturday night to win the league title game. More importantly, the Golden Flashes clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years.
It was particularly satisfying for KSU coach Rob Senderoff, who admitted 2022's loss so stuck in the minds of his players that even the lock code to get into their locker room reflected the final score: "75-55."
"I don't want to use the word 'redemption,'" Senderoff, Kent State's winningest coach all time, admitted, "but I'm sure there's a little bit of feeling of that throughout the program for all of our guys."
Just like Friday's semifinal win over the Zips, this one was never easy, even though 2-seed KSU (28-6) took multiple sizeable leads throughout the game. The top-seeded Rockets just would not quit, as MAC Player of the Year RayJ Dennis turned in another stellar effort with 25 points and six rebounds.
However, the Flashes were more than willing to fight, with five different players scoring at least 12 points. Sincere Carry overcame a rough first half to lead the way with 26, and Malique Jacobs added 17 along with 12 boards. Chris Payton also recovered from an early injury and tallied 17 points on 7 of 7 shooting, with multiple vicious dunks.
"I don't think I've had any player that from the start of the season to the end of the season has developed individually like Chris, and it all comes down to his mental fortitude," Senderoff said of the Pitt transfer. "It's really a testament to him."
After building an 11-point first-half lead, Kent State let it slip away, but still took a one-point advantage into the break following a Jacobs put-back at the buzzer. Toledo (27-7) continued to hang around, but late 3s by Carry and Sullinger helped seal the deal. The Solon native Carry did not miss a shot in the second half and was named tournament MVP.
Carry enjoyed his own redemption arc, for last year in this game he scored just six points. This year, Kent fans were chanting "M-V-P" as he went to the free-throw line in the final minutes.
"I want to make some noise in there," Carry said of the upcoming Division I tournament. "I'm not just going just to experience the moment; I want to try to win."
Kent State will find out its "March Madness" opponent Sunday at 6 p.m. during the NCAA Selection Show. This will be the Golden Flashes' seventh trip to the "Big Dance" since 1999.
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