CLEVELAND — Jason Carter had waited — no, worked — six long years to enjoy a night light this.
In a win-or-go-home scenario, Carter came up with the best postseason game of his long career — which now spans 149 games — to lead Ohio over Ball State, 77-67, on Thursday night in the last of four quarterfinal games at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. With the Bobcats limping into the postseason, Carter made sure the Bobcats would make it to the weekend.
“The last time I was here (in Cleveland) was my freshman year. That was a long time ago,” Carter said after No. 3 Ohio (24-8) punched its ticket into Friday’s semifinal against No. 2 Kent State.
“Now it’s do or die. I’ve just been trying to enjoy the moment.”
Carter scored 20 points and pulled down a career-high 18 rebounds on Thursday, in just 26 minutes. He had never scored more than 19 points in five previous conference tournament games.
Carter’s last game in Cleveland came in 2017 as a true freshman when he was pressed into duty as the starting center in place of injured MAC MVP Antonio Campbell. He excelled in the tournament opener that year, posting 19 points and 12 rebounds, but in the next round was humbled. He played 21 minutes against Kent State in a semifinal, and finished with four points and five personal fouls.
Since then, Carter has been on the losing side of every postseason game he’s played in. You want to know why Carter came back to Ohio this season? It was for nights like this. It was to play well in big spots for a program and teammates he appreciates.
“He came back here for a reason,” Ohio head coach Jeff Boals said. “And he played like it tonight.”
Ohio, as a team, played more like the team that started the year 22-4 as opposed to the one that lost three in a row and four of its last five before Thursday night.
Carter was backed by another superlative laden performance from Mark Sears (24 points, 10 rebounds, five assists), and with Ben Vander Plas (14 points, 6 rebounds) he walled up the paint against the No. 6 Cardinals (14-17). The Bobcats even unlocked that elusive fourth scorer on this night; Miles Brown added 13 points.
Ohio was plus-10 on the glass, and forced enough dry spells from Ball State that the game was a laugher going down the stretch. The Bobcats led 77-54 with 2:47 before the Cardinals finished with a 13-0 run in garbage time.
“We had a good edge,” Boals said. “The sense of urgency was there. Lose and you’re at home. Win and you advance.
“We got a new lease on life. This is why you play. This is March.”
Ball State center Payton Sparks piled up 20 points and 14 rebounds of his own, but feasted late with nine points and six rebounds inside the final 2:30. Tyler Cochran added 16 points.
Ohio’s win was fourth in a row against Ball State, and 13th in the last 14 meetings. OU improved to just 2-5 all-time in neutral site meetings against the Cards.
But Ohio’s big night didn’t start smoothly.
The Bobcats survived another clanky offensive start and took a 36-35 lead into halftime. The Cardinals used a 9-2 spurt and led 21-15 eight minutes in. But BSU cooled off, and its get-to-the-rim-at-all-cost approach ground to a halt; The Cards hit just two of their next 15 shots after gaining that lead.
The deficit 26-21 before the Bobcats revved their offensive up. Ohio, with Sears driving the offense with a heavy foot on the pedal, finished the half on a 7-of-10 shooting tear.
“Our stops,” Sears said. “We got stops, got in transition and found our rhythm.”
Sears sparked an 11-0 run that turned the five-point hole into a six-point lead. He drove strong to the rim for a 3-point play, and used a slick euro-step move for a layup in transition. After passing out to Vander Plas for another assist on a 3, Sears stuck his own triple in transition.
Sears had 13 points in the half, but Ohio had just a one-point lead thanks to Cochran who capped an 11-point half with his 3-pointer from the left side with three seconds left in the half.
The ‘Cats opened the second half with a 10-0 burst, keyed by 3-pointers from Ben Roderick and Vander Plas. Carter and Vander Plas scored a combined 16 points in the first eight minutes of the half.
“All the credit to Ohio,” Ball State coach James Whitford said. “They got three real guys out there who can really play.”
The Cardinals closed to within 55-51 with 9:25 left, but Ohio dropped the hammer with a 17-0 run. Sears finished it with a dazzling sequence — nine points in 56 seconds — that included three free throws and consecutive 3-pointers from the same spot on the left wing.
Vander Plas added a 25-foot, straight-on, 3-pointer and Sears chipped in two more free throws for the 77-54 lead.
Limping into the postseason, Ohio found its balance and now is two wins away from a repeat MAC championship. The Bobcats have seven MAC titles, but have never done it back-to-back. Boals, now 5-0 in the MAC tournament as a coach, said the regular-season finish is a mirage forgotten now.
Ohio faces Kent State (22-9), winners of 13 straight, back at RMFH beginning at approximately 7:30 pm on Friday night.
“I’ve told them ‘You belong here. You earned it.’ Now you get to go out and prove it,” Boals said.
Carter proved it on Thursday, punctuating his big night with a pair of thunderous dunks. He’s waited an unbearably long time for a night like this. Now he gets to see if he can get another.
“I’ve tried to learn from (his long playing history,” Carter said. “There would be times I would get too focused on what had happened before, or what might be coming next.
“Now it’s about enjoying the moment, and who you’re enjoying it with.”