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It was far from the ideal start that the Bobcats wanted in the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals on Friday afternoon, but Ohio pulled out the 63-55 victory over Buffalo to advance to the MAC Championship on Saturday.
The Bobcats’ three leading scorers throughout the season — Kiyanna Black, Quiera Lampkins and Mariah Byard — struggled to get anything to go in the first half, going 4 for 21 combined from the field and scoring just nine points.
But in the second half, the script flipped for the trio.
With 9:25 left in the first half, Buffalo had cut the Bobcats’ lead to two following a 3-pointer by Mackenzie Loesing. The Bulls’ forward contributed on all of the team’s 11 points (seven points, two assists) during a six-minute stretch.
However, following an Alexus Malone jumper to narrow Ohio’s lead to one, it was the Bobcats’ lone senior’s turn to hit her biggest shot of the game.
With 2:51 left on the clock, Byard, situated in the right corner, received a pass from Lampkins, and the senior nailed her third 3-pointer of the game to make it a two-possession game, 55-51.
“I wasn’t making some shots that I normally make, so I mean but that happens. I had plenty of games like that this year as well,” Byard said. “I think that we made the shots that we needed to make and that’s what mattered.”
Ohio coach Bob Boldon called a timeout following the make to set up the Bobcats’ defense, and neither team scored until a pair of free throws by Malone with 1:27 left. With the lead back to two points, it wasn’t Black, Lampkins, or Byard who hit the big bucket to keep it at a two-possession game for the rest of the game.
Instead, it was Lexie Baldwin.
The junior took the ball from the top of the 3-point arc and drove to the hole to knock down a contested layup, giving Ohio the 57-53 lead with 1:07 left.
From there, Kat Yelle (eight assists), Lampkins, and Byard combined for 6 of 7 from the free throw line to seal the win.
Lost in the final-minute heroics by Baldwin (13 points, seven rebounds) and Byard (13 points) was the second half improvement by Black. The First Team All-MAC selection went 2 for 11 from the field in the first half, but she started to attack the rim in the second half and went 4 for 5 to finish the game with 13 points, three assists and three steals.
“(Black’s) tough,” Boldon said. “You know, a lot of people think toughness is the ability to absorb contact. There’s a mental side of toughness as well. And both of these young ladies (Black and Byard) have that.”
“I think she’s one of the best players in the conference this year,” said Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack on Black. “I thought she really stepped up and she did some tremendous things all season long. And today was no different.”
Mackenzie Loesing had 14 points off the bench for Buffalo, while Kristen Sharkey, a Second Team All-MAC selection, finished with 12. Also key for Buffalo was the play of Joanna Smith, who finished with 12 points on 4 of 6 shooting from three.
Mariah Harris provided a spark off the bench in the first half with five points, while finishing the game with seven points on a perfect 3 for 3 shooting from the floor.
The Bobcats will play the winner of Eastern Michigan and Ball State Saturday in the Quicken Loans Arena at 1 p.m. The winner of that game will receive an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.