CLEVELAND (AP) — The pain from last year's championship loss, and the unusual circumstances surrounding it, stuck with Kent State's players, gnawed at them.
On Saturday night, they finally found relief.
Sincere Carry scored 26 points, Malique Jacobs added 18 and Kent State won the Mid-American Conference championship, 93-78 over top-seeded Toledo, which had its winning streak stopped at 17 and will likely miss the NCAA Tournament for the 43rd straight year.
The second-seeded Golden Flashes (28-6) won their first tourney title since 2017 along with the conference's automatic NCAA bid.
"I want to make some noise," said Carry, Kent State's smooth senior guard, who didn't miss a shot or free throw in the second half. "I'm not just going there to experience the moment. I'm trying to win."
With 28 wins and some near-miss losses at Houston and Gonzaga, the Golden Flashes will be a tough out for any team. They're balanced, tough and in Carry have a player capable of, well, carrying them.
Jacobs added 13 rebounds and six assists while atoning for a mistake last year, when he was suspended for the first half of the title game along with three teammates after they posted a profane video on social media following the semifinals.
Kent State lost in the final 75-55 to rival Akron, and that score was the security code on the team's locker room door all season.
"We kept 75-55 in our head," Carry said.
"This was supposed to happen," added Jacobs.
For Toldeo, it didn't happen again.
The top-seeded Rockets (27-7) now must hope the NCAA selection committee looks at their entire body of work. However, history won't be on their side as the MAC hasn't had two teams in the 68-team field since 1999, and it's more likely they're headed to the NIT.
"I'd like to see our league office do more to get two teams in," said coach Tod Kowalczyk. "The fact that Kent State and Toledo haven't been talked about. That's a MAC problem. This team won 17 straight games. How many teams in the country have won 17 straight games?"
Toledo fell to 0-6 in MAC title games since last winning in 1980.
RayJ Dennis, the conference player of the year, scored 25 for the Rockets. Setric Millner Jr. added 25 and 10 rebounds for Toledo, which reeled off 17 straight wins since losing to Kent State on Jan. 10.
But with a chance to end one of the nation's longest NCAA droughts, the Rockets couldn't finish the job.
Toledo was still within 71-67 when the Golden Flashes went on a 10-3 run capped by Carry's long 3-pointer as the 30-second shot expired.
The Rockets couldn't catch up in the final minutes as Kent State put it away at the foul line in the final minute. Appropriately, Jacobs grabbed Toledo's last miss before celebrating with his teammates, making up for a moment they let escape in 2022.
"Last year was a really tough evening for us," said coach Rob Senderoff. "So really proud of them and happy for them. These are special moments. It's hard to get to the NCAA Tournament in this league."
Toledo came in averaging 85.8 points per game — second nationally to Gonzaga — and these high-powered Rockets had scored over 100 points six times this season. But the Golden Flashes held them to a season-low 63 on Jan. 19, and Kent State's defense was up to the task early.
Getting defensive stops, the Golden Flashes reeled off 11 points in a row to take a 27-16 lead.
With Dennis unable to get going on offense, Millner picked up the slack by scoring 11 straight points and Toledo went on an 18-6 run to briefly take the lead before Jacobs' lay-in at the horn gave Kent State a 35-34 halftime lead.
Toledo's NCAA dry spell has weighed heavily on the program, to the point Kowalczyk, who has been at the school for 13 years, felt it had become an unfair talking point.
"Everybody wants to make a big deal about 1980," he said following Friday's semifinals. "That's not this team's problem."
Unfortunately, it hasn't gone away.
Watch live and local news any time:
Download the News 5 Cleveland app now for more stories from us, plus alerts on major news, the latest weather forecast, traffic information and much more. Download now on your Apple device here, and your Android device here.
You can also catch News 5 Cleveland on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, YouTube TV, DIRECTV NOW, Hulu Live and more. We're also on Amazon Alexa devices. Learn more about our streaming options here.