The Bobcats and their fans gathered Friday night to say goodbye to the team’s four seniors.
None of the nearly 9,000 folks in the Convocation Center figured they’d also likely be waving farewell to Ohio’s Mid-American Conference regular-season championship aspirations as well.
Visiting Akron played a brash and swaggering first half, popped the Bobcats right in the kisser, and then hung on for a 91-83 victory. The Zips (19-9, 12-6 MAC) led by 20 or more virtually the entire second half before an uncanny late 3-point barrage made the score respectable.
Ohio (23-6, 14-4) slipped from first place in the MAC with the loss. Depending on the outcome of Saturday’s slate of games, the Bobcats could fall to third and the prospects of a top-four seed for the upcoming MAC Tournament appear far less likely than they did 24 hours earlier. OU wraps up the regular season with two road games – at Bowling Green on Tuesday and at Northern Illinois next Friday night.
In the first meeting this season, Ohio held out a second-half rally from the Zips to win on the road. In the rematch, the same scenario – but flipped – played out. This time it was Akron who set the terms and bullied Ohio off its game.
“The first half was disappointing,” said Ohio coach Jeff Boals. “They were the more intense team and had more effort the first 20 minutes.
“And I didn’t think we had a presence defensively.”
Trapping aggressively on the wings and in the paint, Akron smothered Ohio throughout the first half. On the other end of the floor, Ali Ali took turns torturing different Ohio defenders with an assortment of running, one-handed floaters and shot-clock-beating 3-pointers.
The Bobcats’ only lead of the game came at 3-2. Akron only needed eight minutes to build a 10-point lead. The Zips used a 10-0 run to take a 31-16 lead with five minutes left in the half, and poured it on for a 46-26 lead at the break.
Akron shot 64.3 percent in the first half with Ali scoring 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. The Zips didn’t cool off much either; Five players hit double figures, Akron was plus-10 on the glass, and the Zips finished a sizzling 30 of 48 (62.5%) from the field for the game.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth. We didn’t pressure them, take them out of anything they wanted to do,” Ohio senior forward Ben Vander Plas said. “This game we kind of backed down from it to start the game which is not what you want to do to set the tone.”
Ali ended with a game-high 22 points but had plenty of help in the second half. Enrique Freeman added 14 points and nine rebounds, while Greg Tribble (17 points), Mikal Dawson (15) and Xavier Castaneda (10) all hit double digits.
Ohio had a sensational offensive second half, where it shot 57 percent overall and bagged 11 3-pointers on its way to 57 points. But that was misleading. Akron led 80-60 with two minutes to go before the Bobcats exploded for 23 points over the final stretch while hitting 6 of 7 from 3-point range.
Ohio didn’t get the deficit under 10 until the final 30 seconds, when Mark Sears hit three straight 3-pointers over the final 29 seconds.
“We know we can make them. I think it’s as simple as that,” Vander Plas said. “We have to come in with that confidence from the jump…not when we’re down 20.”
Sears led Ohio with 20 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists, but was scoreless on 0-3 shooting in the first half. Carter and Vander Plas netted 17 points apiece, Tommy Schmock added 14 points and Miles Brown chipped in 11.
While Ohio backed off from the double-teams and quick traps the Zips used – particularly on Sears and Carter – it was the ineffective defense that mattered more. The ‘Cats forced just three first-half turnovers and allowed 60 percent shooting in both halves. Akron’s 91 points were the most allowed all season by Ohio.
“All year our defense has led to offense. “I know we weren’t prepared for the double the way we should’ve been,” Carter said. “We did not handle that well.
“But all year our defense has led to offense. If we’re not hitting shots, we can get out and get a few easy ones. We got to get off to better starts.”
Prior to tip-off, Ohio honored four senior members of the roster. Walk-on John Tenerowicz, transfers Carter and Schmock, and fifth-year standout Vander Plas. Vander Plas got the biggest reaction from the crowd, and he remains unsure if he’ll return to Ohio next season to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether he does or not, Vander Plas has clearly resonated with Ohio fans this season. That feeling goes double for Boals, who didn’t recruit the Wisconsin native but has come to embrace him as one of his own.
“He could’ve left. He could’ve left when I got the job,” Boals said. “He could’ve left after year one and went to any Big Ten school he wanted to. He could’ve left last year after a great tournament run.
“I love him. Love him like my son. He’s been two feet in from day one. He’s never wavered. He exemplifies what you want in your program,” the coach continued. “He’s one of the best players to ever play here.”
It was a dour end to what had been a terrific home season for Ohio. Boals and the players have spoken many times during the season about what it meant to them to have more fans – and enthused ones at that – in the seats at the Convo. The Bobcats were 15-2 at home this season.
Carter, both a former and current Bobcat, said a blowout loss wasn’t the way he wanted his last game in the building to play out. But the most important stretch of the season has not yet arrived either.
Vander Plas took time at the end of the press conference to back up his friend and teammate in that regard.
“We’re not done yet. We’ll finish out these last two games and see you down at Cleveland,” Vander Plas said.