Kent State-Indiana: Stakes sure are high for pair of low seeds

Flashes' upset of Hoosiers in '01 put Davis on hot seat

South Regional

March 23, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. - A year later, Mike Davis is safe, Indiana is back, and Kent State is still getting intimate with the big boys in the NCAA tournament.

Under a theme of rematch and possible revenge, Indiana and Kent State will renew hostilities in the South Regional championship game tonight at Rupp Arena.

And since when is a matchup between the Big Ten and the Mid-American Conference - a fifth seed and a 10th seed, respectively, at that - met with this kind of hoopla?

Well, since the winner advances to Atlanta for the NCAA's Holy Grail of basketball, the Final Four.

And since last March, when Kent State stunned Indiana with a second-half comeback in the first round. The Golden Flashes' 77-73 win in San Diego put Kent State on the basketball map and Davis on a tenuous perch as interim coach of the Hoosiers.

Davis kept his job, but hasn't lost the feeling. He said yesterday the two teams he didn't want to face in this year's tournament were Texas Tech - that's Bob Knight's new haunt - and Kent State.

"Watching the selection show, I didn't want to play Kent State the first game," Davis said. "I didn't want to have to play them at all. They almost cost me my job last year. I was hoping they would put us in totally opposite brackets."

Davis' job was never more secure than after Thursday's thrilling 74-73 upset of defending national champion Duke. That game lifted the Hoosiers (23-11) into the round of eight, and a position of prominence, for the first time in nine years.

Whatever reservations Davis may have about facing Kent State, his team of gritty co-Big Ten champs did not share them. The Hoosiers have been longing for this opportunity since last March.

"From the standpoint they beat us last year, we all wanted to play them again," said senior guard Tom Coverdale. "They have beat some tough teams to get this far, but as far as the feeling we had last year, I think all of us want to play them again."

If familiarity breeds contempt, this game could turn into a back alley brawl between two very resilient, very tough teams.

"It's kind of like playing in a conference where you see somebody over and over," said Kent State guard Andrew Mitchell. "Their personnel is the same, but Jared Jeffries has stepped up his game immensely. I know they really want to play us."

A year ago, Jeffries was a precocious 6-foot-10 freshman for the Hoosiers. He had nine points and eight rebounds in the loss, but blossomed into one of the country's most versatile players this season. There is speculation he will turn pro after this season.

The Hoosiers waged a war of attrition in last year's game against Kent State. They lost Kirk Haston (29 points) and Coverdale (eight points) to injury, but still held a 54-42 lead heading into the game's final 13 minutes.

Then Kent State's Trevor Huffman took over. Matched up with guard Dane Fife, Huffman scored 20 of his 24 points in the second half and engineered the shocking comeback.

Huffman views tonight's matchup as another chance to prove the Golden Flashes, with their 21-game winning streak, belong in this elite tier of teams.

"It will be weird just because last year was our defining moment," Huffman said. "We're a different team now, and I look forward to the challenge against a Big Ten team that has proven itself."

Fife also relishes the challenge. For reasons he did not entirely explain but that were related to last year's loss, the Hoosiers' senior guard suggested he was personally motivated to play well against Huffman and Kent State. Fife played point guard when Coverdale hurt his hip in the first half.

"It was something I wasn't used to," Fife said. "We were pretty young last year. We're more experienced this year."

Huffman concurred.

"They look like a totally different team," he said. "It's almost like our win fueled them. We're both fighting for a lot right now."

No shortage of motivation there.

"It's a great chance for us to represent the mid-majors, just like Gonzaga," said Huffman. "But more importantly, it's a chance to do something for ourselves. We want our light to shine across the country."

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