Golden Flashes Continue Surprising NCAA Tournament Run

By STEVE BAILEY, AP Sports Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Kent State coach Stan Heath cherishes every moment he spent and every nugget of knowledge he absorbed from Michigan State's Tom Izzo.

So it meant the world to him that his former boss, with whom he won the 2000 national championship, was able to attend his team's emotional 78-73 overtime victory over Pittsburgh in the South Regional semifinals Thursday night.

"Coach Izzo came in our locker room after the game," said a jubilant Heath, in his first season at Kent State after spending the last five years with the Spartans. "He was really happy for our team, and he was really happy for me.

"I miss the experiences I had there, but I was glad he could be part of the experiences we're having now."

Those experiences now include a trip to the NCAA tournament's round of eight -- uncharted territory for the 10th-seeded Golden Flashes (30-5) or any other Mid-American Conference team.

"This is definitely a validation of our place in history," said Kent State senior Trevor Huffman, who scored 17 points as the Golden Flashes extended the nation's longest winning streak to 21 games. "Coach challenged us before the game, telling us no MAC team had ever done this.

"We want to be one of the best MAC teams ever. We want to be known on a national scale, just like Gonzaga and other schools that have to earn everything they get."

Kent State will take on fifth-seeded Indiana, who stunned top-seeded Duke 74-73 in Thursday night's early game, in Saturday's regional final. The Golden Flashes beat the Hoosiers 77-73 in the first round of last year's tournament.

"We know Indiana's a different team than they were last year," Huffman said. "They're tough-minded, they've got tough guards and they've got tough defenders. And they've got a player in Jared Jeffries who's as talented as they come."

Antonio Gates scored 22 points, and Andrew Mitchell and Eric Thomas added 12 each for Kent State, which made six straight free throws in the final 41 seconds of the extra period to seal a tight game and advance within one victory of the Final Four.

"Big games come down to execution," said Gates, who was 7-of-11 and grabbed eight rebounds. "We made big shots and big plays when we needed to."

Brandin Knight, the Big East's co-player of the year, and Julius Page each scored 18 for the third-seeded Panthers (29-6), who recorded the best season in school history in falling a game short of reaching the final eight for the first time since 1974.

"This is definitely the way I wanted to go out except for the loss," said Chad Johnson, Pitt's only senior. "I wish we could have gone further, but it was a great season."

It was Pitt that entered the regional semifinal with a reputation for stingy defense. The Panthers gave up just 60 points a game during the season and an average of only 52 in its tournament victories over Central Connecticut and California.

But Kent State proved early on that it could put the clamps on, too. The Golden Flashes forced 17 turnovers -- 11 in the first half -- and made it hard for Pitt's sharpshooters -- Knight and Page -- to get open on the perimeter.

"We expected everything they did," said Pitt's Antonio Lett, who finished with eight points and four rebounds. "They may have been a little more physical than we thought, but they didn't do anything to shock us.

"It just came down to executing at the end."

Kent State led 29-23 at halftime, but Pitt rallied early in the second half and eventually went up 45-43 on Donatas Zavackas' 3-pointer with 10:05 to play.

From that point, each team would surge ahead by two or three points, only to see the other recover and regain the lead.

Gates' jumper put Kent State up 59-53 with 5½ minutes to play, but Knight's 3-pointer keyed a 7-0 run to put the Panthers up 60-59 with 3:35 remaining.

Down 66-62 at the 2-minute mark, Pittsburgh forced overtime by shutting out Kent State the rest of regulation, while Page hit a layup and Knight scored inside to tie the game.

Gates hit a jumper to open the extra period, and Lott matched it with a basket at the 4-minute mark.

Pitt went up 71-70 on Jaron Brown's free throw with 1:11 to play. But Huffman made a high-banking layup, and Gates and Andrew Mitchell each added two free throws to push the margin to 76-71 with 21 seconds to play.

At that point, Kent State's fans began the celebration. One sign in the sea of yellow and blue said it all: "We don't wear slippers ... we wear Nikes."

Pitt coach Ben Howland said: "I don't want to take away from a great year. To be 29-6, I don't know if anyone expected that out of us. But our team did. We're just sorry that it's over."

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