Battle-Tested Kent State No Upstart Team

KENT, Ohio (AP) - Kent State's impressive NCAA tournament run might be a surprise to everyone in the nation -- except the Golden Flashes.

"I wouldn't say we're surprised, because we have prepared for this," senior guard Antonio Mitchell said Monday before Kent State (29-5) practiced for its first-ever regional semifinal game. That will be Thursday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., against third-seeded Pittsburgh (29-5) in yet another must-win game for Kent State's four seniors.

"Our players have a lot of NCAA experience," coach Stan Heath said. "This experience has helped us be very focused throughout."

Heath also has NCAA experience, but not as a head coach. He's in his first year at the school after three consecutive Final Fours while an assistant at Michigan State -- including the 2000 national championship team.

"We've been to the tournament, but coach Heath has won it," Mitchell said. "He knows -- and we believe in him."

Seniors Mitchell, Trevor Huffman, Demetric Shaw and Eric Thomas have gone 9-1 in the Mid-American Conference tournament, where an automatic NCAA berth is on the line. They were 2-1 in the National Invitation Tournament in 2000, the one time they failed to make the NCAA. And they are 3-2 in the NCAA tourney -- making them 14-4 in do-or-die games.

"On demeanor alone, we could win a national championship," Heath said. "When I compare seniors, I think our demeanor is very similar to what we had at Michigan State. I see a lot of championship mindsets."

Still, none of Kent State's players have ever been in a regional.

"We're in a new setting, but so is every team except Duke in our bracket," Heath said. "Our team really believes, and to be honest, we still have some room to grow."

Huffman, whose 16.2 scoring average leads the team, has seen the team grow but is nowhere near satisfied.

"There's always a better game," he said. "We try to get to that perfect game. To be honest, we haven't been close, but that is what makes it fun."

Pittsburgh presents another hurdle, yet Heath believes Kent State will be prepared for the matchup because the Panthers play a similar style.

"I see a lot of similarities, that's why I think it is going to be a terrific game," he said. "Both teams emphasize defense so much. We're going to have to make some shots. Fortunately, we have some shotmakers."

The winner will face the Duke-Indiana winner in the regional final Saturday.

"We're not looking past Pittsburgh believe me, but to play Duke, now that would be something," Shaw said. "We're a team that always seeks to be better, so playing the champions would be a dream."

With 20 consecutive wins and 25 of 26, the Golden Flashes have been called a Cinderella story already.

"I don't believe we're Cinderella," Huffman said. "But if people want to call us that, and it gets some attention for the little guys, I'll take it."

Pittsburgh won the Big East's West Division, but lost to Connecticut in the conference tournament final two weeks ago. The Panthers beat Central Connecticut State in the NCAA first round, then ousted California -- both at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, less than two miles from their campus.

"They are very strong inside," Heath said. "Right now, you have to look at what teams have accomplished, and Pittsburgh should be the favorite. But there is so much parity in college basketball that we are not a fish out of water."

Pittsburgh and Kent State got a glimpse of each other in November, when both played at the University Hoops Classic. They were on opposite sides of the bracket and did not play. Pittsburgh finished second; the Flashes finished fifth.

"I didn't think I saw two teams then that would be in the final 16," Heath said.

There's no reason to stop now, either.

"This is an exciting time in Kent State history," Heath said. "In some ways for us, this is almost like the Final Four. We kind of looked at this as the next step in our program.

"Who knows how far we can go?" he said. "We're not putting any limits on ourselves."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)