Erica Johnson drives past a couple Huskies defenders in the Bobcats 72-56 win over Northern Illinois in the MAC Tournament Quarterfinals on March 13, 2019. PHOTO: Michael Roth/WOUB

Ohio Women’s Basketball: Bobcats Roll Past Northern Illinois in MAC Tourney Quarterfinals

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CLEVELAND, OH — What better time for a team to find a new aspect of its game than the conference tournament?

Ohio head coach Bob Boldon has harped on his team’s defensive play all season, but in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament, the Bobcats turned in one of, if not their best defensive performances of the season.

The ‘Cats (26-4) forced 22 Northern Illinois turnovers, including 15 steals, in a wire-to-wire victory over the Huskies (19-13) on Wednesday afternoon in Quicken Loans Arena.

“I guess if there’s a time to start playing defense, now is the time. It certainly has improved throughout the year,” Boldon said. “It didn’t maybe improve as fast as we hoped it would improve, but I think tonight they did a good job.”

Newly-named MAC Defensive Player of the Year Cece Hooks led the way in the steals category, finishing the game with five to bring her season total 94. She was a constant menace to Northern Illinois players any time they got the ball.

“I was really focused on making steals. Like I averaged like three steals this season, so I was just locked in helping my teammates,” Hooks said. “And I know they feed off my energy, so I was just focused.”

Hooks was also a force on the offensive end, finishing the game with 16 points, six rebounds and five assists to go along with her steals.

Erica Johnson, who hauled in three separate All-MAC accolades on Tuesday, came out firing for the Bobcats in her first tournament action.

The MAC Freshman and Sixth Person of the Year was a flamethrower early on, scoring Ohio’s first five points on her way to 12 in the opening quarter. Her early offensive explosion propelled the Bobcats to a 23-12 lead after one.

“I think any player wants to get going early, they’re very comfortable. So once I saw my first few shots go in, kind of dictated my game,” Johnson said. “I knew I could keep attacking and get what I wanted.”

Johnson tallied her fifth double-double of the season, finishing with 18 points and 10 rebounds. The All-MAC third teamer also registered four steals.

Wednesday night’s win was the first Ohio win in Cleveland since they won the MAC in 2015. Tournament time has not been kind to the Bobcats in recent years. Friday will be the first time Ohio has played in the Semifinals since 2015.

“I think we were just more focused on winning,” Hooks said. “Like we lost last year and we almost won, but we were more focused.”

The focus showed on both ends of the court. Along with the strong defensive performance, the Bobcats had four of their five starters finish the game in double figures.

Gabby Burris led Ohio with 19 points, going 8-of-14 from the field, while also grabbing five rebounds. Amani Burke rounded out the Bobcats’ scoring attack with 12 points. The only starter that didn’t finish with more than 10 points was senior Dom Doseck, who scored just three points.

“Yeah, it was nice. I thought Northern did a great job in taking Dominique out of the game. I thought Dominique did a great job of not forcing things. She got a couple good looks and took them when she got them, but otherwise she did a great job of moving without the basketball and getting her teammates open and stretching out the floor and giving those guys space to do what they do,” Boldon said. “Obviously, collectively, that was a pretty good win over a pretty good team.”

“I’m just glad to have Gabby back,” Erica Johnson said. “Like she gave her all today, she was doing everything, rebounding, playing great defense, scoring offense.”

Burris had spent much of the tail end of the season nursing a multitude of injuries.

“Last week — this was the first week she practiced an entire week in a month and a half,” Boldon said. “For her to battle back and get herself and then to see some shots go in early.”

Unlike the previous three seasons, the Bobcats will have a semifinal game to prepare for. The team will have off on Thursday before taking the court at The Q again on Friday afternoon.

“It’s about rest and recovery at this point. We’re not going to change what we do. We’ve won a decent amount of games doing things the way that we do them,” Boldon said. “So we’ll rest, we’ll recover, we’ll prepare, but just keeping your legs as fresh as you can.”

The Bobcats will take on the winner of Miami and Toledo. Both teams proved difficult for Ohio during the regular season with Toledo getting the best of the Bobcats in early February and splitting the season series with the RedHawks, but the verdict after Wednesday’s win is that the team would rather see Miami and get their chance to win the best-of-three over their arch-rival.

“It would be nice to get revenge against Miami because they’ve beat us four times in a row,” Hooks said. “But whoever we have, we’re ready for them.”

“I do not have a preference, but like she said, it would be nice to get Miami,” Johnson added. “They’re up one on us right now, so it’d be nice to kind of even that out.”

No matter who the Bobcats play next, the game will tip-off at approximately 1:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon.