It feels like a long time ago, especially since it predates The Mid-Majority and BracketBusters. Indeed it's fascinating to realize this year marks the 10th anniversary of Kent State's run to the Elite Eight.
It also feels like a long time ago because it simply isn't a popular topic on campus anymore. This year's freshman class would have been third graders back then, probably too young to know what March Madness is. Plus, anyone with merely a shallow knowledge of the Vietnam War knows that the 2002 NCAA Tournament is not the reason Kent State University is internationally known.
The Golden Flashes have continued winning ever since. This current team is one victory shy of the program's 13th 20-win season in the past 14 years. Kent State has returned to the dance twice, along with five NIT berths.
But no season has come close to matching what that 2001-02 roster accomplished. Sure, the team has maintained a consistent success that most mid-majors would envy, but settling for the NIT just isn't as exciting. While the university recently vaulted past Cincinnati to become the second-largest student body in Ohio, attendance rates at the men's basketball games continue to decrease.
(It's worth adding that the basketball program has not received a lot of good press lately. Recent abysmal second-half collapses against Ohio and Akron were bad enough, but also last month, the university was nine days away from naming the court after a former graduate in exchange for a $1 million donation, until that donor withdrew his gift after local newspapers reported he previously worked for a company that defrauded 190 investors. He lost his broker license permanently and was among four defendants who paid the Securities and Exchange Commission more than $19 million in fines. Not a single university official disclosed that information to the Board of Trustees before its unanimous vote to approve the donation and naming ceremony.)
The athletic department heavily promoted Saturday night's Bracketbuster game against Charleston, as it would celebrate that Elite Eight team throughout the evening. 2002 MAC defensive player of the year Demetric Shaw and 2003 All-American (and current San Diego Chargers tight end) Antonio Gates were among the team members in attendance and signing pregame autographs. Even with that incentive, just 3,682 were on hand at the 6,327-seat M.A.C. Center.
Enthusiasm may be down, but as a Kent State student and lifelong Northeast Ohioan, that doesn't change my expectations of the Flashes. I want so badly to experience another amazing tournament run like 2002. This season's team returned nearly everyone from last year's trip to the NIT quarterfinals, so it was supposed to be really good. But the Flashes sit tied for second in the MAC East, which is certainly not a destruction of everyone in their path like that 21-game winning streak from a decade ago. Margins of victory of five points or fewer are becoming commonplace.
The Charleston Cougars appear to be a beatable opponent, having a mild 16-11 season in its adjustment to Andrew Goudelock's departure and coach Bobby Cremins' medical leave. Meanwhile, the Flashes have won seven consecutive games and are 11-1 at home. This is a chance to escalate momentum as the season's most important games roar closer, and maybe the Elite Eight team can assist with its motivational speech to the players before tip-off.
Kent State is without senior star Justin Greene tonight due to a bad ankle, but early on the team doesn't skip a beat: replacement Mark Henniger has four points and four rebounds as the Flashes jump to an early 10-2 lead.
Three minutes later, it's 15-3. A quick glance at the stat sheet tells the entire story: Charleston has made just one of nine shots, and has failed to secure an offensive rebound.
The Cougars woke up, or at least sophomore Nori Johnson did. At one point he hit three consecutive #superhoops, the third of which ties the score at 23. After Kent State responds with a 6-0 run, back comes Johnson with a jumper and another #superhoop. Charleston outscores the home team 8-4 in the first half's final two minutes, which is enough for a 36-33 lead.
At halftime, the Elite Eight players in attendance (i.e., those not playing overseas) walked onto the court to watch their tournament highlight reel and receive several rounds of applause from the crowd. In retrospect, perhaps they should have been in the locker room giving another speech. The opening minutes of the second half were the polar opposite of what transpired at the beginning of the game. This time, it's the Cougars on a 9-0 run to create a 45-33 advantage.
The Flashes eventually begin hitting some shots, but not nearly enough. In the first ten minutes of the second half, Kent State players collaborate to miss 10 layups, eight threes and a dunk, and four more Charleston #superhoops helped balloon the Cougars' lead to 62-43.
Then it was 67-48. The Flashes are usually a second-half team, but maybe not tonight. Suddenly, junior Randal Holt breaks out of his #superhoop slump (he had been 0-for-5) in a big way, with three in a row. In the span of 58 seconds, the margin shrinks from 19 to 10.
Somehow, with three minutes remaining, Kent State is on an 18-1 run and down only two points. Gates and Shaw high-five with dropped jaws.
In the end, it comes down to free throws. Antwaine Wiggins hits one to put Charleston up 74-71. Justin Manns fails to convert a Kent State one-and-one. Wiggins hits two more. The Flashes revert to missing every shot it takes.
Johnson finishes with a remarkable 27 points: 8-for-13 from the floor, 5-for-7 from beyond the arc, 6-for-6 from the line. Charleston deserves a ton of credit for its resilience in achieving this road win. But watching from the opposite side, this one game caused a broad spectrum of emotion. The past greats in attendance made me anxious for the imminent awe of March and the fortunes it could have in store. Staring at a double-digit shortfall made me consider the program's potential future of irrelevance; maybe a return to triumph was never meant to be. The incredible rally made me completely alleviate those worries. The final defeat brought me back to the truth of this game: though no team's fate will ever be certain, basketball is cruel nonetheless, and that never changes.
Somebody has to lose, but the next game is only days away. Maybe we'll have another 18-1 run, or maybe we'll miss 23 three-pointers again, but neither are impossible. Few thought a small-budget school in Kent could pull off three Red Line Upsets in a row, but it happened, and it can always happen again. Today, the game ended in a disappointing loss, but the history lesson was a reassuring win.
CHARLESTON 80, at KENT STATE 73 02/18/2012
CHARLESTON 17-11 (8-8) -- R. Chamberlain 8-12 0-0 22; T. Wiedeman 4-11 6-8 14; A. Wiggins 3-10 10-16 17; N. Johnson 8-13 6-6 27; A. Lawrence 1-4 0-0 2; M. Sundberg 2-3 2-2 8; A. Baru 1-1 1-4 3; J. Scott 3-4 1-1 9. Totals 22-46 26-37 80. KENT STATE 19-7 (9-3) -- C. Guyton 7-16 0-0 16; M. Porrini 2-12 3-6 8; C. Evans 6-12 4-4 16; R. Holt 3-11 0-0 9; J. Manns 4-10 0-1 8; E. Gaines 2-8 3-4 7; M. Henniger 4-7 1-2 9; P. Jackson 0-1 0-0 0; D. Manley 0-1 0-0 0; K. Brewer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-78 11-17 73.
Three-point goals: COFC 10-18 (A. Wiggins 1-3; M. Sundberg 2-3; A. Lawrence 0-2; N. Johnson 5-7; J. Scott 2-3), KENT 6-29 (M. Porrini 1-5; C. Evans 0-3; R. Holt 3-10; E. Gaines 0-2; C. Guyton 2-8; D. Manley 0-1); Rebounds: COFC 33 (T. Wiedeman 13), KENT 42 (C. Evans 13); Assists: COFC 13 (A. Lawrence 8), KENT 14 (M. Porrini 5); Total Fouls -- COFC 15, KENT 23; Fouled Out: COFC-A. Lawrence; KENT-E. Gaines.