The Bobcats got punched in the face, or clobbered with a turkey leg if you prefer on this holiday, but responded in precisely the way Jeff Boals hoped.
They swung back.
Ohio coughed up a 12-point first-half lead, but locked the game away with a strong sequence to open the second half on its way to an 84-72 win over North Carolina A&T on Thursday at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill.
The Bobcats (2-0) trailed only once, 36-35 in the opening minute of the second half, and set the stage for a measuring-stick game against No. 8 Illinois on Friday. Tip-off in the final of the three-day, four-day event is 1 p.m. ET.
Sophomore wing Ben Roderick bagged a career-high 22 points on 6-of-9 shooting from 3-point range to lead Ohio. Point guard Jason Preston did what he usually does, and stuffed the stat sheet with 21 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
Forwards Dwight Wilson III (14 points and six rebounds) and Ben Vander Plas (11 points) gave OU four players in double figures.
“One of our mantras is ‘bend but don’t break.’ You have to give our guys a lot of credit for sticking with the execution,” said Boals in a postgame radio interview.
Ohio’s head coach was stomping and huffing, and at one point slammed the scorer’s table, over the final 10 minutes of the first half, however. The Bobcats led 23-11 with 9:49 left after a Miles Brown 3-pointer, but then fell off the pace thanks to a slate of turnovers.
Ohio had 12 giveaways in the first half, and afterward Boals took some of the blame after he admitted Ohio had not prepped against a 1-3-1 zone trap that the Aggies used to get back into it.
6-11 center Harry Morrice had a blocked shot, a dunk on an offensive rebound and then a made 3-pointer to spark North Carolina A&T. The Aggies tied it 35-35 at the half when Lunden McDay fouled Tyrone Jones on a 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left. Jones made all three free throws.
It was all Bobcats after the break. Ohio opened the second half with a 26-10 run, and led 61-46 with 13:05 remaining. Roderick was essential during the surge as he hit four 3-pointers over seven minutes. The ‘Cats had just five turnovers in the second half until a late flurry in garbage time left them with 21 for the game.
“He can change the game with his shooting,” Boals said. “We found him in transition and he got us going.”
By the time Preston finished off a left-handed flip layup in transition, Ohio led 70-50 with 7:55 left.
The win sets the stage for Friday and a clash with the locked-in Illini (2-0) in what you could call the John Groce Classic. Groce, Akron’s current head coach, had a dizzying stint with Ohio followed by a medicore one in Champaign.
Illinois has piled up absurd numbers in routing the Aggies (122-60, Wednesday) and Chicago State (97-38, Thursday). ESPN Stats and Info said Illinois’ two wins marked the first time since 1989 (Oklahoma) that a ranked team opened the year with two wins by at least 55 points apiece.
In two games, Illinois has outscored the opposition by a combined 121 points and won the battle on the glass by a combined 89. On Thursday, 7-foot sophomore Kofi Cockburn outrebounded Chicago State by himself (11-10).
Junior preseason All-American Ayo Dosunmu is averaging 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists per game. Freshman Adam Miller (22.5 points, 8 3-pointers) has been brilliant in his debut week, and Cockburn (16.0 points, 10.5 rebounds per game) might be the most intimidating physical presence OU will see all season.
Illinois is allowing just 49 points per game on 31.4 percent shooting.
“It’s a great opportunity for our guys,” Boals said. “Illinois is probably a top four team in the country. It’s going to come down to toughness, to heart.
“They just come at you in waves.”