CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A basketball season of rejuvenation for Kent State ended late Friday night with a 97-80 loss to UCLA in the opening round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament South Regional in Sacramento, Calif. But there were no tears at the end.
"I couldn't be more proud of our guys in terms of how hard we fought throughout the entire game and for the season that we had this year,'' coach Rob Senderoff said.
A 16-2 hole to start the game was a ditch Kent State could never escape. But the Golden Flashes kept digging. Over the course of the game they would cut a 14-point UCLA lead to nine, a 16-point deficit to eight, a 12-point deficit to four, and another 14-point deficit to 10, before fading over the final seven minutes of the game.
March Madness begat March sadness, but with a smile as the Golden Flashes now start to look to the future. The loss of seniors Jimmy Hall and Deon Edwin will be huge. Hall finished the season averaging 19.0 points and 10.6 rebounds. Edwin was at 13.1 points and 5.5 rebounds.
But the season also marked a clear return to what made KSU a basketball power through much of the first 12 years of this millennial, and offers hope the Flashes will not fall off the cliff going forward.
A lot of Kent's future rests with freshmen and sophomores, some who stood in the spotlight as the Flashes went 8-2 over their last 10 games, defeating the top three teams in the MAC twice, and only one on its home court.
Sophomores Jaylin Walker and Jaylen Avery became an offensive perimeter force (Walker), and a steady calming presence (Avery). Walker averaged 18.6 points the last 10 games of the season. Point guard Avery only had four turnovers in the last 10 games, (amazingly just 20 for the season) and was 14-of-15 from the line.
Sophomore Adonis De La Rosa (6-10, 265) was a presence when not limited by fouls. Freshman Mitch Peterson showed he could be big in big moments. And freshmen Danny Pippen and Alonzo Walker, in limited time, still showed enough to offer hope with improvement.
Kent, for the most part, stayed away from the chuck-and-duck offensive mentality the NCAA is trying to promote and returned to their physical defensive roots. There were games filled with whistles -- a combined 56 fouls and 75 free throws vs. Buffalo in the MAC Tournament -- countered by the combined 26 assist, 15 turnover gem delivered in the Akron-Kent State title game.
In the end, Kent's defense was no real match for the No. 1 offensive team in the nation, but the Bruins had to work for it. Hall ended his career with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Walker left his calling card with 23 points. Edwin had 18 while junior guard Kevin Zabo had 12 off the bench.
"Very proud of our guys, we had our chances,'' Senderoff said.
UCLA will take on Cincinnati in the second round on Sunday in Sacramento.