Updated Fri, Jan 25, 2013 4:19 pm
The Ohio Bobcats are one of two Mid-American Conference teams that can claim an empty loss column in conference play thus far—the Akron Zips being the other. Ohio moved to 4-0 in the conference (13-5 overall) after defeating the Toledo Rockets 76-67 Saturday night.
Toledo (6-9, 2-2) came out swinging and Ohio swung right back, the two trading buckets until the final buzzer. The lead changed just three times but was tied seven times. The Bobcats, after trailing at half, clamped down on defense and upped their offensive efficiency in the final 20 minutes to pull out the victory.
“It was one of those games where you could have played better,” said head coach Jim Christian, “especially in the first half defensively. But we responded in the second half.”
Two clutch free throws from Nick Kellogg capped the game for Ohio, but, uncharacteristically, those were his only two points on the night. Reggie Keely supported the Bobcats’ offense with a career-high 24 points on 9-9 shooting. Keely’s hot hand paired with healthy performances from Walter Offutt, Ricardo Johnson and Ivo Baltic was enough to keep Ohio on top for most of the night.
Baltic put the ‘Cats on the board, throwing down a slam off a missed jumper by Offutt. Baltic’s highlight reel play brought a large crowd into play early. The Convocation Center, known for being a raucous road environment, helped Ohio win the mental game Saturday.
After Baltic’s momentum-shifting slam and a second such play by Keely, Offutt drained back-to-back threes to put Ohio up 10-8. Three possessions later, after the Rockets’ Julius Brown hit a jumper in the paint, Rian Pearson, Toledo’s star guard, and Offutt engaged in a heated exchange. Emotions got the best of Pearson and he was called for a technical foul less than four minutes into the gam.
Rockets head coach Tod Kowalczyk was defensive of Pearson getting called for the foul. “He should have been upset,” said Kowalczyk. “I don’t blame him one bit for that technical foul.”
The Bobcats, however, failed to take the bait, allowing Toledo to regain composure as the half went on.
Keely scored a layup in the paint with 5:09 remaining in the half. Toledo’s Matt Smith followed with a jumper in the lane to tie the game at 30 apiece. A three-pointer from Smith on the Rockets’ following possession gave them the lead, which they carried through to halftime. Toledo led 36-33 at the break. All seven ties came in the first half as did two of the three lead changes.
“I think everybody was a little upset,” said Baltic of his team’s first half performance, “but as far as coming out angry, it depends what kind of person you are.”
Ohio, angry or not, came out firing in the second half and went on a 7-0 run to take the lead. That was the last of the three lead changes, Ohio never trailing or tying for the remainder of the contest.
Toledo made it within one five times, but Ohio relied on big plays to stay ahead. Johnson scored all eight of his second half points in just more than four minutes. The Bobcats emerged from the Johnson-driven run ahead by four points with 6:55 to play. Johnson finished with a career-high 13 points to go with six rebounds.
“[Johnson] was one of our best rebounders,” said Christian, “and then he went away from that. And today he went after every ball.”
Christian continued with his praise of Johnson, who has played well in Ohio’s past two games, filling in for Travis Wilkins, who is still recovering from an ankle injury.
“Ric doesn’t say much, but he plays so hard,” said Christian, “and that’s all I care about. He’s the guy that you know what you’re getting when he goes in the game.”
Backup point guard Stevie Taylor stepped in late in the game, stringing together three outstanding plays to keep Toledo out of reach. After forcing Pearson into a turnover, Taylor sank a contested three as the shot clock ticked away. The following possession, as Pearson drove to the basket, Taylor stood in his path to draw a charge, giving the ball back to Ohio.
“[Taylor’s] played really well over the last four games, I think,” said Christian. “He’s really starting to figure out what we need from him. He’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Ohio’s tendency toward big plays and stellar bench performance has helped the Bobcats dominate their MAC schedule to this point. The question, however, as it has been all season, is if the ‘Cats can bring the same brand of success on the road.
The Bobcats have their next shot to improve their road record Wednesday in Oxford, when they take on the Miami RedHawks. Four of Ohio’s next five games are on the road, including televised matchups at Akron and Kent State.
Photo Credit: Kate Hiller