Published Sat, Mar 16, 2013 12:51 am Dateline
Updated Sat, Mar 16, 2013 10:32 am
For the third time in four years, the Ohio Bobcats and Akron Zips will play for the Mid-American Conference Tournament crown Saturday after the Bobcats punished the Western Michigan Broncos 74-63. Akron defeated the Kent State Golden Flashes earlier Friday evening, 62-59.
Ohio outlasted Western Michigan with help from who else but point guard D.J. Cooper. Cooper, after being named MAC Player of the Year Wednesday, did not disappoint in his first game with his new title. The senior guard led all scorers with 21 points while also adding 10 assists and three steals.
“I felt like we were exploiting their defense pretty good,” said Cooper, “because we were getting a lot of stops in the first half.”
Those stops led to points for the ‘Cats and a hefty bit of the scoring came through Cooper. He scored the ball at high efficiency, making six of eight field goals including four three-pointers. When he wasn’t scoring, he was dishing.
Both teams showed that type of craftiness in scoring early on, utilizing several backdoor cuts and off-ball screens. T.J. Hall earned another start at forward for the Bobcats, which placed him on 2013 MAC Freshman of the Year Darius Paul. The rookie got to work early, scoring four points within four minutes.
But D.J. Cooper, ever the artisan on offense, slipped passes to his big men Reggie Keely and Jon Smith to make up for the Broncos’ early scoring. Cooper hit a three with the score tied at eight to put Ohio up three. Stevie Taylor subbed in on the following possession just to pick up right where his tutor left off, dishing a pass to Ricardo Johnson in the lane for a basket and one.
Then it began to rain threes in the Quicken Loans Arena. The Bobcats sank six three-point baskets in the final 12 minutes of the half, rounded out by a Cooper three with 52 seconds remaining. The senior point guard finished the half with nine points and eight assists. Ohio led at the break, 41-24.
“Seniors step up and make big-time plays,” said Walter Offutt, “and that’s what [Cooper is] known for in the past four years he’s been here at Ohio.”
Ohio’s successful start, however, did not last. Paul began the second half just as he did the first for Western Michigan, scoring the first five points of the period. Brandon Pokley grabbed his first three-pointer of the game less than three minutes into the half. Pokely then hit on a long-range two to cut Ohio’s lead to single-digits.
Western Michigan continued to chip away at the lead, bringing the ball inside. A tipped basket by Paul put the Broncos down nine. After Nate Hutcheson and Connar Tava combined for three free throws, Pokley sank another triple to cut the Bobcat lead to five with 12 minutes to play. Whittington dropped the lead to two just a few possessions later.
However, Cooper counterpunched with an ice-cold trey the next time down the floor. Offutt followed with a three of his own to put the Ohio lead back at eight with eight minutes to play.
“We got down a little early,” said Pokley, “and it is what it is. We just had to change our thinking to how we were going to get that game to work. And the only way to do it is just to fight and that’s what we tried to do.”
The Broncos never went away, keeping the lead to single digits as the minutes wound down. A powerful slam-dunk by Jon Smith increased the Bobcats’ lead to nine as the clock ticked below three minutes to play. Kellogg and Paul traded three-point baskets to keep the lead as such.
Kellogg dropped a three with a minute to play to put Ohio ahead by 12. Cooper was fouled the following possession and sank both free throws to put the game essentially out of reach.
Despite last-ditch efforts by the Broncos, including a deep three from Hutcheson, Ohio’s lead remained insurmountable as the seconds ticked away and Ohio emerged victorious.
With the win, the Bobcats, as mentioned, move onto the MAC Championship Game in which they will face Akron. The top-seeded Zips will be without starting point guard Alex Abreu as he continues to serve his suspension for his accused involvement in a drug trafficking case. The Bobcats have won the past two conference championship games against the Zips, last season in dramatic fashion. Tip is set for 6:30 p.m.