Hardesty: The Flashes blew their March dream in a profanity-laced instant

Interior view of the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center. Photo by Jon Ridinger

The internet has changed the entire course of humanity over the past few decades.

It has democratized the proliferation of information.

It has connected the global population at almost the speed of light.

It has changed the way human beings live their lives.

And it’s where sportsmanship has gone to die.

Trash talk has been as tightly woven into the fabric of athletics as long as athletics have been in existence — which pretty much covers most, if not all, of recorded human history. But there is a fine line between trash talk within the context of competition, and vile, vulgar, repugnant words and behavior.

Especially when the internet is just waiting to expose that vile, vulgar, repugnant activity for the world to see.

In this case, it was four players on the Kent State men’s basketball team — junior forward D.J. Johnson, junior guard Malique Jacobs, freshman forward Cli’Ron Hornbeak and freshman guard Julius Rollins, who embarrassed and disgraced themselves with a disgusting video posted to social media of the four of them taking shots at the arch-rival Akron Zips, complete with profanity-laced taunting and a racial epithet for good measure. All to let everyone know just exactly how they felt about the Zips. Which, let’s be honest, didn’t come as news to Akron — after all, this is not the friendliest of rivalries due to proximity and familiarity. Bragging rights run Grand Canyon-deep between the fan bases.

The deplorable video scene occurred in the Golden Flashes’ locker room following their Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinal victory over Ohio University, a win that set up a third meeting this season between Kent State and Akron in the MAC Championship Game.

Predictably, the video led to Johnson, Jacobs, Hornbeak and Rollins earning some quality suspension time for the game against the Zips. The one that really hurt coach Rob Senderoff’s team was Jacobs’ 12.5 points per game (second on the team) and 7.5 rebounds per game (highest on the team) sitting on the bench for the first half of the MAC title game.

With Jacobs a spectator for the first 20 minutes, Akron, which had lost contests of 67-55 and 66-64 to the Flashes in the teams’ two regular season meetings, jumped out to a 34-25 lead at halftime. With Jacobs back on the floor for the final 20 minutes, KSU closed to 34-33 early in the second half before the Zips pulled away for a 75-55 triumph, a MAC championship and an automatic trip to the NCAA Tournament.

What makes the situation even worse for Kent State is that it wasn’t the first time it happened this season. When the Flashes downed the Zips in Akron on Feb. 11, surviving an errant Akron shot at the buzzer that would have forced overtime, Kent State’s players immediately sprinted to the Akron student section at James A. Rhodes Arena for an ugly taunting and verbal confrontation that resulted in Jacobs and junior guard Sincere Carry, the MAC Player of the Year this season, getting suspended for the next game against Toledo.

To Kent State’s credit, players were suspended for this behavior in both instances. The first time, without the MAC’s top player in Carry, the Flashes rolled past Toledo 72-59. The second time, without their second-leading scorer and top rebounder in Jacobs for the first half against Akron, this repulsive behavior very likely cost the Flashes a conference championship and coveted spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Which leads to some questions:

— No one expects the Zips and Flashes to like each other, but did the four KSU players in question stop to think about how their appalling video might find its way in front of Akron eyeballs and further motivate a Zips team already plenty motivated to avenge its two earlier defeats to Kent State?

— It’s fine to get caught up in the moment after a big win like the 67-61 win over Ohio U. in the MAC semis, but is it asking too much to simply celebrate the victory and not trash your next opponent?

— Did they stop to think how their lowbrow actions would reflect on their team, their coaches, their university, and most of all themselves?

No. Apparently. And no again.

The Flashes were clearly distracted by the whole thing in their play against Akron in the title game. With Jacobs on the bench, they lost the first half by nine points. With Jacobs on the floor, they lost the second half by 11 points. So it was more than just being without a key player for a while. Almost to a player, they were flat and lethargic while Akron played with energy and purpose.

Sure, Akron played a tremendous game, particularly defensively and especially against Carry, who finished with more turnovers (9) than points (6) in the MAC final. But the Flashes were listless, dead in the water most of the game. The video, and the events surrounding it, had stolen their mojo.

This isn’t passing judgment on the character of Johnson, Jacobs, Hornbeak and Rollins as human beings, it’s passing judgment on their judgment as adults. Actions have consequences, and the consequences in this instance were that 24 hours after Kent State returned home from an 83-79 one-and-done loss at Southern Utah in a lower-tier postseason tournament called The Basketball Classic, Akron was representing the Mid-American Conference in the NCAA Tournament, playing college basketball blueblood UCLA in the first round of the East Region in Portland, Oregon.

Surely, Kent State players and coaches watched the Zips and Bruins thinking, “That should be us on that floor.”

Yes, it should have been. But it wasn’t. Poor sportsmanship, as much as the Akron Zips, saw to that.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.