Bob Boldon coaches Erica Johnson during the second half of the Bobcat’s loss to Buffalo in the MAC Championship Game on March 16, 2019. PHOTO: Michael Roth/WOUB

Ohio Women’s Basketball: Bobcats Fall Short in MAC Championship, Await Postseason Fate

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CLEVELAND, OH — A game of basketball is a game of runs. One team scores a few times, then the other battles back with a few buckets of their own.

However, the run Buffalo made in the second quarter of Saturday’s Mid-American Conference Championship Game was too much for Ohio to battle back.

Over a span of 4:15 in the second quarter, the Bulls (23-9) went on a 17-3 run to turn a three point game into a 17-point deficit for the Bobcats (27-5), a margin that they were never able to overcome. Ohio fell to Buffalo 77-61 in the MAC title game, losing out on the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“But I thought, as Jason mentioned, that second quarter run was just hard to overcome. The rest of the game I thought we played well, I thought we played good basketball,” Ohio head coach Bob Boldon said. “They’re obviously a very good basketball team.”

Buffalo, who has been playing their best basketball of the season to get to this point, picked a great day to play a near-perfect game. During the crucial span in the second quarter, the Bulls hit three consecutive 3-point shots and held the Bobcats to just one field goal.

The 3-point arc is where the bulk of the difference in this game was made, particularly in the first half. The Bulls were lights out, hitting 9-of-17 (53 percent) three point attempts in the first 20 minutes while the Bobcats made just five of their 16 (31.2 percent) threes.

“That was a by-product of a game plan that — I mean, they’re so good and you’ve got to give them something,” Boldon said. “You’ve got to give Hanna Hall and Courtney Wilkins a lot of credit for making those shots.”

Buffalo came into the game shooting just 30.8 percent from long range, but saved their best performance in months for the championship stage, finishing the game shooting 44.8 percent (13-of-29) from three. 13 threes is also the most the Bulls have made in a game so far this season.

Hall and Wilkins combined to make nine of the Bulls threes, providing a solid scoring option for Buffalo outside MAC Tournament Most Valuable Player Cierra Dillard. Hall finished with 17 points and 7 assists while Wilkins added 12 points.

Dillard finished the game with 22 points, 14 of which came in the second half to help put the Bobcats away.

“We just weren’t communicating on defense and like rotating in the correct spots. We worked on that a lot in practice and that really killed us because we know we can do it,” Ohio guard Cece Hooks said. “We just got ourselves in a big hole and we just couldn’t get out of it.”

The Bobcats were unable to match the Bulls’ firepower, hitting on just nine of 28 (32 percent) attempts from long distance. In all three games against Buffalo this year, Ohio shot below their season average of 36 percent from three.

Yeah, their defense is good. It’s unique in how they guard us. It’s especially tricky when you’ve got 20 hours to try to get ready for it,” Boldon said. “It comes down to, you know, in these games, the margin of error is so small that victory’s going to favor the people who probably shoot it a little bit better.”

Another factor helping the Bulls in their early game run was Amani Burke picking up her third foul with 8:45 remaining in the first half. The junior would remain on the bench for the rest of the second quarter, forced to watch her team fall further and further behind Buffalo.

“It was very hard to watch my team play and not be out there, especially seeing everything that we needed to do to improve on in the first half. It was really hard. I wish I could get like seven fouls,” Burke said. “Like if that’s how they were gonna call it, I wish I could have had more room.”

Yet another aspect of what has haunted the Bobcats this season came back to bite them again on Saturday. Ohio was dominated on the boards by Buffalo and got out-rebounded 46-29. The biggest reason for this was the play of Bulls’ forward Summer Hemphill, who set a new MAC Tournament record with 21 rebounds while also tossing in 16 points.

“She does a great job of pursuing the basketball. They put her in positions where she can do so obviously playing that bottom part of the zone, and they do play a lot of zone against us,” Boldon said of Hemphill. “So she’s around the basketball a lot, around the basket a lot, I should say, and we missed enough shots for her to gather them, that’s for sure.”

But even with all that was going against the Bobcats, they still managed to fight their way back into the game. With just under six minutes to play in the game, Dom Doseck hit her fifth 3-pointer of the game to cut the Buffalo lead to eight, 65-57.

“Yeah, that was really good to see because we haven’t been down that much that often,” Boldon said. “So it’s kind of a new situation and I thought they handled themselves really, really well.”

Cece Hooks scored 14 of her team-high 24 points in the second half to make the thought of a Bobcat comeback a realistic one. Hooks was also named to the All-MAC Tournament team for her efforts. She averaged 18.7 points and 5 rebounds over Ohio’s three games in Cleveland.

“I think I saw more holes. I wasn’t being quite aggressive in the first half and second half I just picked it up,” Hooks said. “And like Coach Bob said, like get it in, nobody can stop me if I just play my game.”

The comeback would never come closer than eight, however, as Buffalo outscored the ‘Cats 12-4 over the final four minutes of play.

Now, the Bobcats’ attention will turn to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee on Monday night. Without the automatic bid to the big dance, they will wait to see if they get the invite.

If Ohio receives an at-large bid to the tournament, it would be the first in program history.

Many experts and metrics seem to lean towards the Bobcats getting that nod, but those around the team know that nothing is guaranteed.

“I think we’re in, we just want to go in with an open mind,” Burke said. “We know we’re going to have another game regardless of what tournament we’re going to make it in, but I think we’re in.”

“I like to think that we are. I think that our body of work of what we’ve done and where our RPI was this morning,” Boldon added.” “It kind of feels like we should be in the tournament.”

All of the teams and seedings will be announced on Monday night at 8 p.m. on ESPN. Until then, the Bobcats will be hanging on every new projection and watching the other tournaments play out.

One thing is for sure, though. Whether it’s the big dance or the WNIT, Ohio will be playing postseason basketball.