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Christian Thomas scores 31, but Loyola falls 70-63 to Kent State

Updated: March 25, 2013 6:17AM

If the Horizon League had a most-improved player award, Loyola sophomore Christian Thomas might be the runaway winner.

In 17 of the Ramblers’ last 19 games, the 6-5 forward scored in double digits and recorded six double-doubles — including his career-high 31 points with 11 rebounds on Saturday against Kent State at Gentile Arena.

But Thomas wasn’t enough to overcome the veteran balance of the Golden Flashes, who overcame an 11-point deficit to win 70-63 in a BracketBusters game.

‘‘They were keying on him and he still got 31,’’ Loyola coach Porter Moser said. ‘‘He’s all heart and toughness. What I hope is that all seven of our freshmen soak in what he does and feed off what he does.’’

Thomas is averaging 15.7 points and ranks eighth in the league in scoring. He has picked up the slack in the absence of senior Ben Averkamp, who missed his fifth straight game with a concussion.

The Ramblers (14-14) were again without junior point guard Cully Payne, who is likely to miss the rest of the season with sprained ligaments in his left hand.

‘‘We’re playing as if neither will be back,’’ Moser said.

Without them, Thomas has led a team of mostly sophomores and freshmen, with four other Ramblers sidelined by injuries.

‘‘We’re shorthanded, and that’s never an excuse, but it does mean our margin for error is very small,’’ Moser said.

‘‘Because we’ve had injuries, especially with Ben out, I knew I needed to step up,’’ said Thomas, whose sixth double-double of the season is the most by a Rambler since Paul McMillan had eight in 2003-04. ‘‘I know to expect the double-teams and then be a good passer because we have other guys who can score.’’

The Golden Flashes (15-12) put the clamps on Loyola’s other players, with freshman Devon Turk the only other Rambler in double digits (10 points).

Sophomore forward Chris Evans (16 points, 10 rebounds) was one of four double-digit scorers for Kent State.

The Ramblers led by 11 midway through the first half, but the margin disappeared as Kent State turned up its defense, causing turnovers and getting offensive rebounds that turned into scores.

‘‘You get up on a team and then we think we can coast,’’ said Thomas, whose 31 points were the most by a Rambler since Averkamp had 31 against Toledo on Dec. 10, 2011.

The Ramblers trailed by as many as 12 in the second half but got only as close as 68-63 with 12 seconds left.

‘‘Effort wasn’t the issue for us,’’ Moser said. ‘‘If we had played defense [throughout] like we did the last few minutes … you have to defend for 40 minutes.’’

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