Ohio Squeaks By Kent State, 69-68

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Head coach Jim Christian led the Ohio Bobcats to their sixth consecutive Mid-American Conference victory, defeating the Kent State Golden Flashes 69-68 at Christian’s old stomping grounds. Ohio (15-5, 6-0) had a battle on its hands that certainly did not lack for drama.

After point guard D.J. Cooper hit two free throws with less than a minute to play, Kent State failed to score on two possessions, including a clean look at the basket by Randal Holt in the game’s final seconds.

“Holt got a great look at the buzzer,” said Christian. “Sometimes those shots go in and you’ll be miserable. If it doesn’t go in, we’re very happy.”

The Bobcats ended the game happy as Holt’s shot rimmed off giving Ohio the one-point victory. The win was Ohio’s third consecutive road win after losing its first three on the road. It was also Christian’s first win against his former team where he earned the highest winning percentage in MAC history.

“It’s hard,” said Christian about returning to Kent State. “I look down at their bench over there and I’m proud of those guys because of how hard I know they worked.”

Ohio began its march to victory with tenacious defense, forcing two consecutive turnovers to start the game. Ivo Baltic hit Nick Kellogg on a backdoor cut for a reverse layup for the Bobcats’ first bucket of the game.

Kent State earned its first points of the contest on a pair of free throws from Chris Evans, but Ohio’s Walter Offutt continued his hot three-point shooting, answering on the following possession from behind the arc.

Randal Holt tied the game with a three-pointer out of the first media timeout. The Golden Flashes took the lead on their following possession as Darren Goodson drained a fade-away from the top of the key to put the Flashes up 11-9.

Neither team gave an inch in the first half, practically mirroring the opponent each possession. Khaliq Spicer had a ferocious slam in an open lane with 8:20 remaining only to have Reggie Keely follow on the other end with an eerily similar dunk of his own.

In the first half alone, the lead changed 13 times and the score was tied eight times. No team led by more than four in the half, that margin being the Golden Flashes’ halftime lead of 36-32.

Keely started the half well for the Bobcats, hitting on his first shot in the paint. A Kent State turnover followed by a second consecutive layup for Keely eliminated the Flashes’ halftime lead. Keely, who finished with 20 points, scored the first seven points of the half for Ohio.

After the 12th tie of the game with 14:03 remaining, Cooper took the game into his own hands by scoring 10 of Ohio’s next 12 points in a five-minute stretch. The Bobcats played well as a unit in the middle minutes of the second half, going from a basket-for-basket dead heat to being up by eight.

It seemed Ohio was beginning to slowly put the game away, but two consecutive threes by Kent State tied the game with 5:22 to go. A three-point play by Evans on the next Kent State possession gave the Flashes the lead and shifted the momentum in the home team’s favor.

Keely and Kent State’s Kris Brewer traded layups with less than five minutes remaining. Thus, began more back-and-forth. Keely hit a free throw on Ohio’s next trip down the court. The Bobcats tied the game after a defensive stop the following possession, Cooper finding Keely under the basket from the three-point line. Keely hit the layup to tie the game at 65.

“[Ohio] didn’t panic,” said Christian, “played the right way, got a huge stop when we needed to get it. And that’s what you need to do to win in a really difficult environment.”

Goodson matched the ‘Cats the next possession, hitting the back end of his trip to the line to give Kent State a one-point lead with 2:16 remaining. Keely and Brewer traded buckets again and the Flashes held a 68-67 lead with 1:14 left to play. Keely scored the Bobcats’ first seven points of the half and seven of their last nine to finish the game.

“Reg knows how to find the hole,” said Cooper, “especially when I’m driving.”

Cooper forwent a pass and drove the lane again, getting fouled with 54.1 seconds remaining. He sank both free throws to give Ohio a one-point lead. Evans held the ball for Kent State the next possession and was called for traveling with 42.8 seconds to play.

The Bobcats held the ball for most of the shot clock in an attempt to leave the Flashes with little time to respond. Cooper had his three-point attempt blocked with eight seconds to go leaving the Flashes with time to get a good shot.

A good shot is exactly what they got. Holt drove the lane and got off a clean floater about 10 feet from the basket. The shot danced on the back of the rim, bouncing off as Offutt wrestled the ball away from the Flashes’ Mark Henninger as the clock expired.

“We’ve been doing the little things that it takes to win,” said Cooper, “defending, getting stops late and just trusting one another and doing whatever [Christian] tells us to do.”

Christian’s strategy, judging by record only, seems to be working. Ohio is 6-0 in the MAC for this first time since 1974. The Bobcats have a brief trip back home for a game with Eastern Michigan. With a win and a crafty spin of Fortune’s wheel, the Bobcats could travel to Akron for a battle of unbeatens February 2.