It’s amazing the difference a few inches can make.
If Darius Beane’s 3-pointer, an open look from the left side at the buzzer, is just touch more online then Ohio today could be dealing with the fallout of a catastrophic home loss to the last-place team in the Mid-American Conference.
Instead, the Bobcats ‘found a way to win’ in picking up a 76-73 decision over visiting Northern Illinois on Tuesday night in the Convocation Center.
The Huskies (1-8, 0-4 MAC) dropped their third game in a row, and played for the first time since head coach Mark Montgomery was fired on Sunday. Ohio (6-4, 2-2 MAC) never trailed after starting the game down 0-2, and led by as many as 15 points in the second half.
But still, the Bobcats were sweating out the final second as Beane launched a potential game-tying 3 on the game’s last play.
“We found a way to close the game. I wish it would’ve been all be wrapped up tight in a neat little bow but that’s not reality,” said Ohio forward Dwight Wilson III, who was brilliant throughout with a game-high 25 points on 12-of-14 shooting.
“They were playing for their coach, they were playing for each other, they had extra motivation coming into this game,” Wilson added. “It’s good for us because we were able to find a win and that’s going to be big…It happened this way tonight for a reason and I’m glad it ended up in our favor.”
Ohio played a third straight game without point guard Jason Preston, who remains out with an undisclosed injury.
“No timetable,” said Ohio head coach Jeff Boals. “We’re going to take it slow. He has not practiced yet. I doubt if he practices this week.”
Each of OU’s five starters hit double figures, but the Bobcats again got little from the bench. Boals handed out just 29 combined minutes (out of 200) to his reserves, and guard Miles Brown (15 minutes, 6 points) had the majority of them.
Ben Roderick backed Wilson with 13 points, but had just two in the second half. Ben Vander Plas added 11 points, five rebounds and tied a career-high with seven assists. Lunden McDay chipped in 11.
Junior forward Zool Kueth exploded for a career-high 22 points and added seven rebounds off the bench for NIU. Kueth entered the game 1-of-15 from 3 for the season, then proceeded to bomb the Bobcats with 6-of-9 from the arc.
Beane added 16 points, Anthony Crump added 13 points and nine rebounds and Trendon Hankerson had 12.
Freshman Mark Sears, making his third straight start for Ohio, had 10 points, seven assists and two rebounds in place of Preston. He was also in the middle of a tight end-of-game sequence.
Ohio led 46-31 with 16:59 remaining after Wilson finished off a 3-point play inside. But then the Huskies went off. NIU hit 16 of their next 23 shots overall, and 7-of-8 from 3-point range. The Huskies entered the game last in the MAC in offense and in 3-point shooting.
“We just got to stay focused, we got to stay locked in,” McDay said. “Our tags on their offense, our rotations, were bad. They were playing with intensity.”
NIU closed to within 72-69 with 2:31 left after Kueth hit his final 3 of the night. Sears answered with his own trey to make it 75-69 with 2:11 to go.
Crump’s put-back bucket cut the deficit to four with 38 seconds left. After the teams traded turnovers, Sears missed the front end of a one-and-one with 11 seconds left.
Hankerson scored with six seconds left to make it 75-73. McDay then hit one of two free throws with 0:05 left to make it a 3-point game.
Ohio had a foul to give, and used it. After a reset, NIU was still able to get a good look for Beane with two seconds left. The shot was off, and the Bobcats snapped a four-game skid against the Huskies that dated back to 2018.
“We found a way to win the game which was most important,” Boals said. “Our ball pressure wasn’t what it was the last two games…which allowed them to get downhill on their ball screens and even their drives.”
NIU won the board battle by a plus-10 margin (38-28), and pulled down 11 offensive rebounds. The Huskies’ shooting percentages (45.8 percent overall and 47.6 percent from 3) were their best in MAC play this season.
“You have to be consistent, you have to stay focused and you have to prepare for everyone,” Wilson said. “You can’t take anyone lightly in this league.”
Ohio had no issues in the first half, rallying from the 2-0 hole for a 17-7 lead just six minutes in after a Roderick 3-pointer. Roderick’s corner 3 with 3:42 left in the half made it 37-24, and he added a 3-point play with 3:10 left for a 40-26 lead.
The Bobcats led 42-31 at the break, and were up 15 early in the second before the game turned.
An uneven effort won’t cut it on Friday night when Ohio travels to Toledo (9-3, 4-0 MAC) for a 6:30 p.m. start. The Rockets have won six straight, including Tuesday’s 84-82 win at Kent State.
“We’re going to have to be better defensively. It’s a high-scoring team. We got to play better,” Boals said.