CLEVELAND — The Bobcats worked so hard all game long to overcome cold outside shooting and a cohesive defense to finally fire up their rabid fans.
But Sincere Carry and Malique Jacobs had the answer.
Fueled by the aforementioned backcourt duo, Kent State worked over Ohio throughout then withstood a late charge for a 67-61 victory inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Friday night in the second of two semifinals of the 2022 Mid-American Conference Tournament.
Ohio (24-9) nearly wiped out a 15-point second half deficit, but Carry and Jacobs scuttled the effort with big time shots in the game’s biggest moments. Carry and Jacobs scored 14 of KSU’s last 15 points, with 10 and four respectively inside the final 7:08.
“That’s having really good guards,” said KSU head coach Rob Senderoff, deflecting any credit for the clutch finishes late. “They made some huge plays for us.
“Guys have to make plays when it matters.”
The win was the 14th in a row for the streaking Golden Flashes (23-9), who advanced to the MAC Tournament championship game on Saturday night (7:30 pm). KSU will face No. 3 seed Akron (23-9), which upset No. 1 seed Toledo 70-62 in Friday’s other semifinal.
Jacobs finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for the Flashes, and Carry had 16 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Tervell Beck had 10 points, nine in the first half, as Kent State owned the interior. KSU held a 38-20 edge in points in the paint, won the rebounding battle 40-27 and scored 11 second-chance points on 12 offensive rebounds.
Ohio coach Jeff Boals said the game would be decided by toughness, and the Flashes were the tougher team close to the rim.
“When you’re struggling to get points, you need to get offense in transition and with offensive rebounds and we didn’t get enough of that,” said Boals, who lost for the first time in the MAC Tournament (5-1) as Ohio’s head coach.
“It was those 50/50 balls…those things you have to do in these types of games,” said Ohio forward Ben Vander Plas.
Vander Plas led Ohio with 20 points and six rebounds. The game could have been the final one for him in an Ohio uniform. He is eligible to return next season if he wishes, but has not decided yet.
“No decision yet,” Vander Plas said, citing a need to decompress and talk over things with his family and the coaching staff. “I’m just thankful for this year. It’s been a fun ride.”
Mark Sears added 15 points and six rebounds, but hit just 4 of 12 shots. Jason Carter added 10 points and seven rebounds, but was 3-of-11 from the field.
Ohio shot 40.4% for the game and 8 of 24 from 3-point range. But those numbers were decidedly lower until a rally in the latter stages of the second half.
The Bobcats trailed 52-31 with 8:40 left, and looked dead in the water as Kent State’s defense cut off drivers, contested jumpers, and congested the lane with multiple bodies and swiping arms.
But OU landed a 12-1 run, capped by Sears’ 3-pointer from the left wing to make it 53-49 with 5:46 left.
Then Carry and Jacobs went to work. Carry converted a drive down the left side, through contact, then dropped in a 3-pointer from the top of the key to blunt Ohio’s momentum.
The Bobcats kept charging however. Vander Plas crushed a wicked dunk on a baseline drive, and Miles Brown netted a right-corner 3-point to pull OU to within 58-56 with 2:56 left as the Green & White section roared in approval.
But Jacobs sliced down the lane for another tough finish through contact, and on the next trip dropped in a fade-away jumper off the same action.
“We knew it was going to be (Carry and Jacobs) down the stretch. They hit some tough shots,” Boals said.
Another Sears’ 3-pointer made it 63-59 with 54.8 seconds left. Ohio elected not to foul on the next possession, and Carry made them pay with a fade-away jumper at the top of the key with 25 seconds left for a 65-59 lead for what was the clincher.
“At the end, we made a lot of big plays, that’s all that was,” Carry said.
Kent State opened the game with a 7-0 run before the Bobcats launched a 15-3 answer to take their largest, and last, lead of the night at 15-10. It was a short respite from the Flashes’ thwarting defense.
Ohio missed its next nine shots, and failed to score for more than seven minutes. In the interim, KSU landed a 15-0 run for a 25-15 lead. The Bobcats shot just 33% in the first half, and trailed 31-23 at the break. The tone had been set. Sears, for instance, had two points on 0-for-3 shooting in the half.
“They’re a really physical defense,” Sears said. “In the first half I was out of my rhythm.”
The Flashes gradually extended the lead in the second half, before Ohio rallied late.
The Bobcats started the season 22-4, but lost five of their last seven games. The 24 wins are the fifth-most in program history, and the 23 regular-season wins were the second most in program history.
It was a good year, even if Ohio isn’t tabbed for a spot in the NIT following Selection Sunday. But it comes tinged with what might have been as well. Jason Preston turned pro, Dwight Wilson III was lost for the year with a knee injury, and Lunden McDay left the team in December.
The Bobcats battled, competed, and for through the start of February looked like perhaps the best team in the conference. But Ohio didn’t stick the landing.
“This was one of the funnest years I’ve had in coaching in 27 years,” Boals said. “I’m not disappointed in the season. I’m disappointed I can’t coach these guys another day.”
The loss stings for Carter, the sixth-year senior who came back to Ohio for one more crack at the NCAA Tournament. It won’t happen. The ‘Cats couldn’t repeat as MAC Tournament champions.
“It’s hard,” Boals said. “I feel like I failed him. That’s the tough part about it.”
2022 MAC Tournament
Cleveland, Ohio | Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse
Thursday, March 10 Quarterfinals
Game 1: No. 1 Toledo 72, No. 8 Central Michigan 71
Game 2: No. 4 Akron 70, No. 5 Buffalo 68
Game 3: No. 2 Kent State 85, No. 7 Miami 75
Game 4: No. 3 Ohio 77, No. 6 Ball State 67
Friday, March 11 Semifinals
Game 5: No. 4 Akron 70, No. 1 Toledo 62
Game 6: No. 2 Kent State 67, No. 3 Ohio 61
Saturday, March 12 Championship
Game 7: No. 2 Kent State (23-9) vs. No. 4 Akron (23-9), 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)