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Kent State holds off Ohio to win 14th straight

Golden Flashes reach MAC title game against Akron

CLEVELAND – Ohio rallied to within two points in the final minutes, but Kent State held on for its 14th straight victory 67-61 in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference tournament Friday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

The Bobcats trailed by as many as 15 points in the second half before making a run that came up short.

In what could have been his last game for Ohio, Ben Vander Plas had 20 points and six rebounds, while Mark Sears scored 18 points with six rebounds. Jason Carter had 10 points and six rebounds while possibly wrapping up his college career.

"One of the funnest years I've had in 27 years of coaching, and it's because of the character of these young men on the court and off the court - the trust and belief that they've had in each other," Ohio coach Jeff Boals said. "They've been through a lot this year - good and bad. Second most regular season wins in school history, and just disappointed that we can't coach these guys another day."

No. 3 seed Ohio (24-9) rebounded from another poor shooting half, falling behind 31-23 at the break, having made just 33.3% of its shots, but No. 2 seed Kent State (23-9) came up big down the stretch, with Malique Jacobs especially clutch by scoring 15 of his 19 points in the second half. He added 10 rebounds and five assists. MAC Player of the Year Sincere Carry scored 10 of his 16 points after halftime with eight rebounds.

Kent State’s biggest lead came on an Andrew Garcia 3-pointer with 8:43 remaining, making it 52-37, but Ohio fought back starting with a Sears 3-pointer and then two free throws from Carter.

A few minutes later, a pair of Sears free throws cut Kent State’s lead to 53-46, and a Carter blocked shot led to a fast-break 3-pointer by Sears to make it a four-point game with still 5:47 to go.

Carry scored on a second-chance layup and hit a 3-pointer in a stretch that pushed the Golden Flashes’ lead back up to seven, but Vander Plas threw down a dunk and Sears connected from long range, getting the Bobcats to within 58-56 with 2:56 remaining.

Jacobs scored the next two baskets, though, and after a Garcia free throw, Ohio kept its chances alive with a Sears 3-pointer, making it 63-59. Carry, though, scored on a jumper in the paint after working the block down to 25 seconds to put Kent State back up by six. Vander Plas made two of three free throws with 11 seconds left, and Carry closed out scoring with two more free throws.

"I'm proud of our guys fighting back to it, down two with a couple minutes to go," Boals said. "I thought we just needed to get those one or two stops. Our guys gave everything they had."

The Golden Flashes scored the first seven points of the game. The Bobcats scored the next eight – five of them by Miles Brown. A few minutes later, a Tommy Schmock 3-pointer put Ohio ahead 15-10.

Kent State turned the tide with a huge 15-0 run, capped by a Giovanni Santiago 3-pointer to make it 25-15 with 6:37 to go. Ohio got as close as 27-23 on a Vander Plas 3-pointer before a pair of Golden Flashes baskets made it an eight-point game at halftime.

The Bobcats got it back down to four early in the second half, but the Golden Flashes slowly built the lead back up over the next 10 minutes.

Ohio improved its field goal percentage to 40.4% for the game but with only four assists and five offensive rebounds. Kent State shot 45.6% with 11 assists and 12 offensive boards. The Golden Flashes had an 11-2 advantage in second-chance points and 38-20 edge in points in the paint.

Boals did not rule out the Bobcats playing in any postseason tournament, saying "we'll see on Sunday."

If not, then the careers of Carter and Schmock are over. Carter played most of the season with a microfracture, and Schmock played Friday night's game with a fever of 103.

Vander Plas is in his fifth year in the program, but with redshirt and COVID years not counting against him, he is eligible to play one more season if he chooses. He said he would sit down with his family and make a decision.

"I'm thankful for this year," Vander Plas said. "It was a fun ride."

Kent State meets rival and No. 4 seed Akron, which knocked off top-seeded Toledo in the other semifinal, in the tournament championship game at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.

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