Gabby Burris has become accustomed to the every-day-is-an-unknown nature of the 2020-21 season. But the senior forward said the uneasy day-to-day availability of players and coaches has only honed Ohio’s belief in what it does.
“We’re trying to expect the unexpected. We know the morals and values of this team, and we’re trying to carry that strong in the absence of anybody,” said Burris, shortly after OU dispatched visiting Western Michigan 74-52 at the Convocation Center on Saturday.
The Bobcats (12-6, 10-5 Mid-American Conference) have had plenty of practice of leaning into their culture, if not being able to depend on a full roster. One starter (Edecia Beck) left the program in December, and another – Peyton Guice – returned to the Convo for the first time on Saturday since a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 23 at WMU.
On Saturday, junior guard Erica Johnson wasn’t available for a fourth straight game due to a sore knee. Two other players, freshmen guards Kate Dennis and Kendall Hale, remain away from the team while they deal with their own COVID-19 issues.
Also on Saturday, OU played without assistant coaches Tavares Jackson and Marwan Miller, who missed due to COVID-19 protocol. Burris said the players tried to mimic the duo’s most repeated game-day expressions, but head coach Bob Boldon said the experience was “weird.”
“You go back to our time at Youngstown State and I haven’t coached a game without (Jackson) in over a decade,” Boldon said.
In such times, the Bobcats are relying more than ever on the program’s core concepts and principles. Defense, effort, and player development. All three showed up against the Broncos (3-13, 2-12).
Ohio blew open a 31-31 game at the half with a dominating second 20 minutes. WMU was held to just 21 second-half points, hit just 1-of-13 from 3-point range after the break and coughed up 12 turnovers in the second half. After muddling through two quarters, the Bobcats won it cleanly going away.
“It’s a tie game at halftime and we had to decide if we are going to win or lose. They decided to win, and that’s a very encouraging sign,” Boldon said.
Senior guard Cece Hooks was the engine that powered the whole process. She bucketed 20 of her game-high 29 points in the second half, and tortured WMU in the paint with an assortment of scoop shots, layups and impossible-angle bank-ins. For good measure, Hooks added seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
“I feel like I was attacking more in the second half,” Hooks said. “I know my team needed me to be more aggressive and score while getting them involved so our offense could get going. I just locked in during the second half.”
Burris added 11 points and six rebounds, but it has been consistent development of others that has allowed OU to weather Johnson’s absence. The Bobcats are 3-1 without Johnson over the last two weeks.
Sophomore guard Jasmine Hale dropped in 10 points off the bench, and sophomore forward Abby Garnett had another strong bench stint with six points and five rebounds. Freshman forward Madi Mace had 14 points and nine rebounds.
That trio has seemingly taken a big step in the last two weeks.
“It’s not surprise at all,” Burris said. “Having them show it on the floor is expected.”
Sydney Shafer had 14 points, and Taylor Williams added 10 points and 12 rebounds for the Broncos, who never led again after scoring the first two points of the second half.
Hooks exploded for eight points as part of a 15-4 run in response as Ohio crafted a 46-37 lead with 3:58 left in the third quarter.
Ohio led 56-46 entering the fourth, and then held WMU scoreless for the first 3:30 of the quarter. After Hale dropped in a right-wing 3-pointer with 6:42 left, the Bobcats led 66-46 and the game was clinched.
The victory moved Ohio to within 1.5 games of first place in the MAC standings behind Bowling Green (15-4, 11-3), which saw its game on Saturday with Eastern Michigan postponed. The Bobcats are tied with Kent State (7-5, 6-3).
Ohio will host Northern Illinois (11-6, 9-3) on Wednesday in the Convo. The Huskies won Saturday (81-75) over visiting Buffalo.
Boldon would like to get Johnson back, but said he won’t rush her return. Ohio is scheduled for an off date next Saturday.
The fact that OU has no games to make up is remarkable, and with five games left the Bobcats sit secure in the knowledge that a regular-season championship isn’t yet out of reach while a spot in the MAC Tournament is all but guaranteed at this point.
The season has taught Boldon to appreciate game days even more than usual, he said. He missed Ohio’s road game at Kent State in December because of his own COVID-19 exposure.
“You don’t have to look further than across the hallway,” Boldon said, referring to the Ohio men’s team and its current pause due to positive COVID-10 testing, in regards to how quickly the season can change.
“The bottom line is we’re happy to be playing. For these two hours, that’s the only sense of normalcy our players get.”