Except for one breakaway dunk attempt that didn’t get over the front of the rim, it was hard find many flaws with the way Mark Sears played Tuesday night as Ohio whipped visiting Western Michigan 81-58 inside the Convo.
Jeff Boals wouldn’t even chide the freshman point guard for the dunk attempt. Sears, at 6-foot-1, can get it done the head coach said.
“We’ve seen it. He’s got a 40-inch vertical,” Boals said.
It was a quibble, nothing really, in another glittering performance for Sears, who has quickly morphed from unknown backup, to key contributor, to an indispensable part of Ohio’s plans for a strong finish to the 2020-21 season.
After all, how many other backup guards in the Mid-American Conference – let alone first-year ones at that – are taking over games with instant injections of production, toughness and grit?
Sears showed all three against the Broncos (2-8, 1-8 MAC), who wilted after the opening 10 minutes. Sears set a career-high with a game-high 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting. He scratched out two rebounds, tied for the team lead with three steals and handed out a team-high six assists.
And he did it all in just 23 jam-packed minutes.
“He has a great finishing ability,” said Boals. “He creates contact and gets to the free throw line. His ability to get down low just adds a whole different dimension to our offense.”
That knack for navigating the toughest patch of real estate on the floor has made an impression, even on the Bobcats’ best interior player. Forward Dwight Wilson III had 19 points and eight rebounds for Ohio (9-6, 5-4 MAC), which pulverized the Broncos inside.
Ohio won the rebounding battle 43-33, and pasted WMU with a 44-14 edge in points in the paint. Wilson said Sears played a big part in those numbers, and has emerged as a breakout freshman in the conference.
“The maturity and growth since he’s been here has been unbelievable,” Wilson said.
Lunden McDay and Ben Vander Plas added 11 points apiece for the Bobcats, but OU got by with muscle more than finesse on this night. The ‘Cats shot just 26.9 percent (7 of 26) from 3-point range, and standout lead guard Jason Preston finished with a season-low six points on 3-of-9 shooting.
Ohio established Wilson early, and his assortment of moves and finishes around the rim didn’t disappoint. Far from a one-trick pony, Wilson’s barrage of half-hooks, reverse layups, flip ins and short-range bankers set an early tone.
“When you watch him (Wilson) in games and practice, he’s unorthodox in the sense like he has a phenomenal touch,” Boals said. “Sometimes, he’ll just flip it up there. Sometimes, he’ll reverse it. He’s just got a knack for scoring.”
But WMU stayed even early on thanks to Greg Lee, who scored a team-high 17 points. Lee netted the Broncos’ first seven points, and nine of WMU’s first 12. The Broncos took a series of small leads in the early minutes, with the last coming at 19-17 with 11:20 left in the half.
But the Bobcats dialed in on Lee, Sears settled in by getting into the paint, and Ohio won the final 11 minutes of the half by a 24-12 count for a 43-31 lead at the break.
“We put a little bit more focus onto (Lee), just guarding our gaps and trying to limit every possession to one shot,” Vander Plas said. “We held them to single digits for a while in the second half. Everyone bought in at halftime and we came out and had a great start.”
Ohio scored the final seven points of the first half, and then opened the second with a 16-6 burst capped by Sears muscling inside for a 3-point play. Ohio led 59-37 with 11:03 remaining and never looked back.
“They hit that wall and couldn’t overcome it,” Wilson said.
Ohio led by as much as 26 points down the stretch, and emptied the bench with about five minutes to go. The Bobcats have a short turnaround with a road game scheduled at Buffalo on Friday, and Boals took the opportunity to save a few minutes for his starters.
With Ohio currently without two forwards – Rifen Miguel was out again Tuesday for COVID-19 protocols and Nolan Foster remains out with a lower leg injury – the Bobcats are going to need everyone to help on the glass.
But OU does have Sears, a piece unlike most in the conference this season. Boals didn’t begin season fully understanding what the freshman could provide, but he’s up to speed now.
“Now he’s proven it, now he’s done it,” Boals said.
“He’s been a great spark plug for us,” Vander Plas noted.