Published Tue, Dec 20, 2011 11:52 pm Dateline
Northern Iowa was 6-0 at home this season before Tuesday night's game; make that 6-1.
Ohio never trailed, was never tied once it took a 1-0 lead 1:08 into the game, and dominated the Panthers in a 76-59 wire-to-wire win in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday.
"It's obviously a quality win," head coach John Groce said. "One that our guys should be proud of for sure."
During the game, some on Twitter were calling this one of the best non-conference regular season wins in Groce's four seasons at Ohio, the coach was not so quick to make that leap.
"I don't know, obviously it's a great one because of how good they are."
This game was a marquee match up of two quality, mid-major programs. The Panthers had all the numbers: the third best RPI in the country, ranked 10th in the Mid-Major Top 25, and owned a strength of schedule ranking of 16, now Northern Iowa is a tremendous "W" on Ohio's increasingly impressive resume.
Ivo Baltic led all scorers with his season-high 22 points, nine shy of his career-best 31. It was an efficient night for Baltic. He shot 10-14 from the field including a surprising two-for-two from behind the arc, something we had not seen much of this season from number 23.
"We've been having him shoot them like crazy all season and he's been making them in practice." Groce said Baltic was a more confident shooter than he has been. "He's the only guy I've ever coached, I tell people. that I bet to shoot the ball and he won't shoot it."
Some of the other top 'Ohio performers were D.J. Cooper with 13 points and four assists, Nick Kellogg hit three shots from deep and finished with 11, T.J. Hall was the last member of the green-and-white in double figures with 10, but Reggie Keely was close with nine points in just 15 minutes.
The game plan to beat the Panthers was to chase them off the three-point line where Northern Iowa was shooting nearly 42 percent this season. The 'Cats held the Panthers to just 6-20 from behind the arc (30 percent), game plan, executed.
"We just executed our game plan," Groce said. "I told the team before the game I wanted to hold [Northern Iowa] to six or less makes from three and at or under 30 percent... I thought our guys really embraced the plan and did a great job in that area."
Coach Groce always talks about those "four minute wars" in a basketball game. They are the first and last four minutes of each half. Ohio led 44-32 at halftime. Any team is going to push hard coming out of the break when trailing, especially a team like Northern Iowa that plays so well at home.
"They have a lot of pride... we knew they were going to come out and take a shot at us," Groce said.
But instead of knuckling down and playing nasty defense, the Bobcats offense carried Ohio in the opening portion of the second half, much to the head coach's surprise.
"Ironically our defense was weakest those first four minutes of the second half, fortunately we were a juggernaut on offense."
The first four minutes of the second half went to Ohio 11-7 pushing its lead to 55-39 at the first media timeout. The 16-point margin was plenty for the 'Cats as they cruised for the remaining 16 minutes.
A 17-point road win over Northern Iowa should get the attention of the voters. Ohio received three votes in Monday's AP Top 25 poll, the Panthers received seven. What looks like a certain resume-building win was not even originally supposed to happen. Tuesday's game was originally scheduled to be a contest against St. Bonaventure, but after scheduling conflicts arose Ohio dropped the Bonnies and picked up the Panthers instead.
History continues to be made with this team. The 10-1 start is the best beginning to a season since the 1940-41 season, when the team began 11-1. Ohio will try to tie that team on Friday when the Bobcats return home to host North Carolina A&T (4-8).
There seems to be something special about this group and Groce, a man that sees the team nearly everyday, agrees.
"I love this group, I said that at the beginning when we weren't 10-1. It's as cohesive a group as I've had since I've been here."