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PHOTO: Courtesy of Colin Mayr / Ohio Athletics

Ohio Women’s Basketball: ‘Cats Dominate Miami to Earn Bye in MAC Tournament

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ATHENS, Ohio — Amani Burke stood with her teammates at center court, singing and clapping along with “Stand Up and Cheer” with the Bobcat fans in the Convocation Center.

As she clapped along, she looked up at the crowd that had cheered her on the last four seasons for one last time and smiled.

Burke, along with fellow seniors Katie Barker and Maddie Bazelak, went out on a high note on Saturday afternoon. Not only did they handly defeat arch-rival Miami 92-78 to snap a four-game losing streak, but they also go just the help they needed from Ball State to retake fourth place in the Mid-American Conference standings to earn a bye in next week’s MAC Tournament.

“I think today, we made a statement,” Burke said. “Not only to those watching us, but to ourselves. We’re figuring it out.”

After losing their previous four games, Ohio (18-11, 11-7), the team that was picked to win the MAC before the season started, was suddenly sitting fifth in the overall standings. During the stretch, they even suffered losses to a pair of teams, Akron and Bowling Green, that finished the conference slate with sub-.500 records.

But the RedHawks (11-19, 4-14) came into the game on an even bigger slide, having lost seven in a row, giving the ‘Cats a perfect opportunity to shake the rust off prior to the tournament.

And, after a slow start to the game, Ohio managed to exorcise all their demons of the last two weeks with 20 minutes of near-flawless basketball on both ends of the court, outscoring Miami 55-32 in the second and third quarters.

“There was kind of a new-found joy and excitement about playing and a new perspective about trying to get better in practice,” Ohio coach Bob Boldon said. “Although we practiced for a very short time this week, I thought there was intention to try to do things better.”

Even though it took until the second quarter for the Bobcats to truly find their rhythm, Burke started the game hot, opening the game with her first 3-point make in five quarters. In a quarter where Ohio’s top two scorers, Cece Hooks and Erica Johnson, managed just two points, Burke propelled the ‘Cats to a 13-12 lead with eight points.

“(Burke’s shots) seemed to come more natural,” Boldon said. “It was less forced, (the ball movement) was a lot more organic.”

Burke continued to take advantage, going on to score 18 points in the game, tied for her best performance since the calendar flipped to February. She was also a menace to Miami on the defensive end, generating four steals and pestering the RedHawks all afternoon.

“That’s just something I’ve been working on,” Burke said of her defense. “That’s been something that’s been first on my list of goals, not scoring or anything.

“I think that’s the reason we’ve been losing. Our defense hasn’t been in sync.”

During their four-game slide, the Bobcats gave up over 76 points per game to their opponents, which is well above their season average of 67.1 points allowed.

On Saturday, the Bobcats seemed to plug up the leaks they had over the last two weeks. When Boldon began to empty his bench with 6:41 to play in the game, Ohio held an 83-50 lead. To that point, Miami had shot just 38.5% from the field and turned the ball over 19 times, leading to 25 Bobcat points.

“The defense in the first half was phenomenal,” Boldon said. “In the third quarter, we got a bit sloppy, but I thought we did a good job of creating separation and making plays.”

On the other end of the floor, the Bobcats had their best scoring performance of the season. Hooks led the way with 24 points despite not hitting a shot until nearly 13 minutes into the game. Hooks also nearly tallied her second double-double of the season, finishing with nine rebounds and seven assists.

Johnson didn’t catch fire until late in the third quarter, only managing three points in the first 26:53 of the game. Over the next 4:54, she exploded with 13 points to push the Bobcat lead out to 29. To go along with her 16 points, Johnson also grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out seven assists to rack up her sixth double-double of the season.

Gabby Burris, who had been relatively quiet over the last seven games, turned in one of her best performances of the season. Burris scored 19 points in the game, which was not only tied for her best output in conference play, it put her over 1,000 career points.

Burris became the fifth Bobcat to achieve that milestone since Boldon took over in 2013.

“I knew how close I was,” Burris said. “It happened so fast, it was crazy. It’s a good accomplishment.”

After a couple of tough weeks, the Bobcats still got their job done and got a bye to Cleveland. They now have three days to rest before taking on the winner of Western Michigan and Bowling Green on Wednesday in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse with a start time of roughly 2:30 p.m.