MARIETTA —Kennesaw State is the ASUN Conference’s regular-season champion.
The Owls beat Central Arkansas 72-56 on Friday in Conway, Arkansas, and in doing so, finished the regular season 15-3 in conference play. Though Liberty finished with the same record, thanks to its win over the Flames on Feb. 16, Kennesaw State will be the No. 1 seed for the ASUN tournament.
It means as long as the winning continues, the Owls will play in front of their home crowd, and they have already clinched their first postseason berth as a Division I team. All regular-season conference champions earn an automatic bid into the National Invitational Tournament, should they not earn a berth into the NCAA Tournament.
It was Kennesaw State’s first conference title since the 2004-05 season, when it won the Peach Belt in its last season in Division II.
After going 1-28 in his first season just three years ago, coach Amir Abdur-Rahim initially said the sound of the Owls (23-8 overall) being the ASUN champion was unbelievable, but he then stopped himself and put it a different way.
“It seems very believable,” Abdur-Rahim said, “because I know the people who have been in our corner, and I’m happy for our university.”
Abdur-Rahim credited his coaching staff and the administration who all believed he had things on the right track. The Wheeler High School alum said the Cobb County basketball community has embraced his team, and more than anything, he gives credit to his players.
In today’s transfer portal world, it would have been easy for many of them to leave the program after it went 5-19 in Abdur-Rahim’s second season, or when their roles changed. But this group stuck together, and now they could be a dangerous club to face in the postseason.
Despite that, the mood was calm as the team walked off the floor following its win Friday. There was no jumping around, no cutting down nets, and it was just business as usual.
Abdur-Rahim said he and his squad were taking some well-intended advice to heart. After beating Liberty, Abdur-Rahim said he got a text message from Creighton coach Greg McDermott.
“It said, ‘Don’t let tonight be the highest point of your season,’” Abdur-Rahim said.
That will be the goal starting Tuesday, when Kennesaw State’s hosts the winner of a first-round game between Queens and Florida Gulf Coast, who will face off Monday at the KSU Convocation Center.
On Friday, however, Kennesaw State took care of the necessary business to get it to this point.
It was not always pretty, as both teams struggled at times shooting, but the Owls’ defense again came to play. It held Central Arkansas (9-22, 4-14) to 34.4% shooting and only 6-of-25 (24%) from behind the arc.
With 11:51 left in the first half and trailing 17-16, Kennesaw State started to take control. Three straight times down the floor led to 3-pointers — first by Spencer Rodgers to give the Owls the lead for good, and followed by 3s from Kasen Jennings and Simeon Cottle.
Two jumpers by Demond Robinson and a layup by Terrell Burden pushed the lead to double-digits for the first time at 31-21. The team closed the half with a 3 from Quincy Ademokoya and two more layups from Burden, and the lead was 39-28 at the half.
“I don’t care what (Central Arkansas’) record is,” Abdur Rahim said. “They don’t quit. I was talking with (Lipscomb) coach Lennie Acuff, and he told me it’s a hard place to go win.”
Central Arkansas remained within shouting distance and pulled within eight three times in the second half, but Kennesaw State had an answer each time. With 6:44 to play, the lead was 58-50, but the Owls closed with a 14-6 run.
Robinson led three players in double figures with 13 points, Chris Youngblood had 12 and Burden finished with 11 points, six rebounds and six assists. Rodgers had nine points on three 3-pointers and Brandon Stroud brought extra energy by scoring six points and pulling down 11 rebounds.
Camren Hunter and Eddy Kayouloud each had 20 points for Central Arkansas.