Kevin Zabo zipped past Eugene German and maneuvered in between Lacey James and Levi Bradley to knock down the game-winning layup as host Kent State defeated Northern Illinois, 61-59, Monday in a Mid-American Conference tournament first-round game.
“(Kent State) made the play at the end of the game,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “We had a good stretch where we were up six and had a lot of momentum, but they made two big shots, two big 3s. We weathered that storm, got the lead back, got a defensive stop and at the end, down one, we let them play.”
Midway through the second half, NIU went on a 10-0 run to take a six-point lead with just more than nine minutes remaining, but Kent State responded with the next eight points to take a 50-48 lead.
With 1:07 left, Zabo converted a layup to give Kent State a 59-58 lead. Both teams traded empty possessions, and then it was NIU’s turn – German attacked the basket and was fouled at the rim with 7.4 seconds left. He made the first free throw to tie the game at 59 and, after a Kent State timeout, missed the second attempt.
The Golden Flashes grabbed the rebound and fed Zabo, who zipped down the court to convert the game-winning basket and end the Huskies’ season. Zabo finished with a game-high
“All we were trying to do was get to Cleveland,” Zabo said. “Close games have been the theme all year. We were down six at one point, but we kept telling ourselves, ‘We’ve been here before.’ ”
Kent State limited German – the league’s leading scorer – to 12 points. Bradley scored all of his game-high 18 points during the second half.
Although the Huskies failed to win a conference road game and finished with a 1-13 record on the road, Montgomery said he was proud of how his team fought.
“What I’m proud of is our defense traveled, our energy traveled, our effort traveled, our heart traveled,” Montgomery said. “If we can have that mindset for next year and have those four things, no matter where we are at, on the road, you have the opportunity to win games. We were in this game tonight, we just didn’t close it out.”
By the numbers: NIU concludes its season with a record of 13-19. The Huskies were 1-13 on the road and failed to win a conference road game.
They said it: “If we can have that mindset for next year and have (defense, energy, effort, heart), no matter where we are at, on the road, you have the opportunity to win games,” Montgomery said. “We were in this game tonight, we just didn’t close it out.”
Up next: Kent State moves on to face fourth-seeded Ball State in a MAC tournament quarterfinal game Thursday at the Quicken Loans Center in Cleveland.