It’s become a staple of the messaging surrounding the Bobcats under Jeff Boals: Bend, but don’t break.
Ohio lived up to the mantra on Tuesday night as the Bobcats shook off a second-half defensive swoon and owned the final four minutes in a 69-63 victory over host Akron inside James A. Rhodes Arena. The win was the sixth in a row for the Bobcats (11-2), who became the first team in the Mid-American Conference to go 2-0 thanks to back-to-back road wins.
“Anytime you win on the road in the league, it’s a great win,” said Ohio coach Jeff Boals in a postgame radio interview. “We’ve said the next step for our program is winning on the road. We’re starting to do that.”
Akron (8-4, 1-1 MAC) had a six-game winning streak snapped and spent virtually the entire game working uphill. The Zips led for just 17 seconds; That came when Enrique Freeman snapped a 60-60 tie with a free throw with 3:02 remaining.
Ohio led the entire way to that point, and led by as much as 14 points in the second half alone. The ‘Cats led 60-50 with seven minutes left before the Zips rattled off 10 in a row to knot it up.
“Coach is always saying ‘Bend, don’t break.’ We handled the adversity well,” said Ohio point guard Mark Sears, who notched his fourth straight game above 20 points with a game-high 24. “We just had that next play mentality.”
Senior forward Ben Vander Plas embodied that spirit at exactly the right time. On Ohio’s next possession after falling behind for the first time, Vander Plas – sporting a new rust-colored mustache – drilled a 3-pointer from the right side to put OU back in front 63-61.
Vander Plas, before that make, had hit just two of his previous 23 3-point attempts.
“We made the plays when we needed to,” Boals said.
Ali Ali engineered the Akron comeback with 22 points. But he missed badly on his final four shots, and the Zips missed each of their final seven shots from the field over the final four minutes.
Akron tied it 63-63 on a pair of free throws, but Ohio answered with Ben Roderick’s drive down the lane.
Ohio closed it out with Sears and Jason Carter, who backed the PG with 19 points of his own. Sears slithered his way down the lane for a layup with 26.4 seconds left to make it 67-63 and Carter closed it out with a two-handed dunk against a late, desperation, full-court press.
Mikal Dawson had 14 points and Xavier Castaneda added 13 for the Zips, but Ohio’s defense was front and center throughout. Akron shot just 39.3 percent overall, and struggled to find any consistency. The Zips trailed 33-23 at the half after shooting 9-of-28 in the first 20 minutes.
Ohio channeled that defensive focus down the stretch.
“We’re hard to score on in the halfcourt,” Sears said. “At the end, we knew it was go time.”
Vander Plas chipped in 11 points for Ohio, while Sears added team-highs of eight rebounds and five assists. The Bobcats also weathered some foul trouble for the first time this season; starting SG Miles Brown fouled out with 2:13 left while Carter finished with four fouls.
If leading the league after 10 days and pinning a loss on a rival wasn’t enough, Ohio also celebrated the win for Boals. The third-year coach picked up his 100th career win (100-67) in his sixth season as a collegiate head coach.
“It’s special,” Boals told CBS Sports Network afterward. “To do it on the road makes it even better.”
The game had the kind of intensity usually associated with early March instead of early January. Both Groce and Boals picked up technicals during the game for instance. The game definitely had a different, more aggressive, feel than Ohio’s league opener – a win Saturday at Western Michigan.
The Bobcats are leading the MAC pack, are off to their best season start since 2011-12, and haven’t even played a home league game yet. That comes on Friday night when Kent State (7-6, 2-1 MAC) visits the Convo.
“We didn’t break, we held strong,” Boals said, again going back to that core ideal. “Every night you have to bring your ‘A’ game.”
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