So much for surging into the postseason, packing momentum for a trip to Cleveland, or any other wording you’d like to employ to describe Ohio’s readiness for the 2022 Mid-American Conference Tournament.
The Bobcats will stumble into the biggest week of their season saddled with knowing they’re playing their worst basketball of the year.
The offense never found a rhythm and Mark Sears’ one-man show wasn’t enough down the stretch as Northern Illinois held off Ohio 58-57 at the Convocation Center in DeKalb, Ill. on Friday night.
The Bobcats (23-8, 14-6) finished the regular season on a season-worst three game losing skid and have lost four of their last five since starting the year 22-4. Ohio will be the No. 3 seed for the MAC Tournament, and begins tournament play on Thursday at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland against No. 6 Ball State at approximately 6:30 p.m.
“It’s been a disappointing end to the regular season,” said Ohio head coach Jeff Boals in a postgame radio interview. “We’ve got to regroup, mentally and physically refresh. We’ve got a great opportunity next week.”
Northern Illinois 99-21, 6-14 MAC) ended its season with the win. The Huskies finished 10th in the MAC standings and did not qualify for the league’s postseason tournament.
Keshawn Williams and Trendon Henderson netted 15 points apiece for NIU, which picked up a fourth straight win over Ohio on its own home floor. The Huskies walled off the Bobcats in the paint (28-16 edge in paint points), took advantage of enough opportunities in transition (11-2 in fast-break points) and held OU to 33.3 percent shooting in both halves.
NIU despite playing without second-leading scorer Caleb Thornton. Ohio’s Sam Towns was unavailable as well.
“We missed some wide open shots, ones you have to make in a game like this,” Boals said.
Sears, Ohio’s dynamic sophomore point guard, flirted with a triple-double and finished with a game-high 19 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists. With Ohio trailing 56-50 with 3:05 left, Sears also took it upon himself to try to win the game.
Sears handled the ball exclusively over OU’s final six possessions. He converted a trio of tough, twisting driving layups, the last coming with 1:10 left to pull the Bobcats to within 58-57. But, Sears’ off-balance jumper from the lane with about 40 seconds left was off the mark, and his step-back 3-pointer with 2 seconds left rimmed out and the Huskies prevailed.
Sears had 16 of his 19 points in the second half, mirroring a recent trend of quiet first halves and big finishes from the guard.
“We’ve got to figure out ways to get him going earlier,” Boals said. “That’s something I need to do that will help us going forward.”
Jason Carter had 10 points for Ohio, but didn’t score over the final 17 minutes. Miles Brown chipped in nine points. Ben Vander Plas had nine points, but all came from the foul line. Vander Plas and starting wing Ben Roderick were a combined 0/10 from the field. Super sub Tommy Schmock was 2/7 from the field and is now 3/17 in the last two games.
Still, Schmock hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give Ohio it’s last – and largest – lead at 36-32 with 13:22 remaining. But the Huskies rallied with a 12-2 run and never trailed again.
Ohio endured a nine-minute stretch with one made field goal, and NIU led 53-47 with 4:30 left before Sears made his final push.
The Bobcats led 13-11 eight minutes into the first half, but another cold stretch flipped the game. Ohio failed to make a shot from the field over a stretch of more than seven minutes; NIU used the drought to craft a 15-3 run for a 26-16 lead. Ohio cut the margin to 27-21 by the break.
The loss was the second one-possession road setback for Ohio in four days to end the regular season. The end of season swoon has also included a blowout road loss to No. 2 seed Kent State, and a home loss to No. 4 seed Akron.
The Bobcats have looked, and played, tired of late. They’ll enter the tournament in sharp contrast to Kent State (12-game winning streak), top-seeded, regular-season champion Toledo (5-game win streak), and Akron (5-game win streak).
You want to be dialed in entering the tournament. The Bobcats have five days to get there.
“It’s a clean slate for everybody,” Boals said. “We’ve got time to get it turned around.”