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PHOTO: Michael Roth/WOUB

Ohio Women’s Basketball: ‘Cats Shoot Past Western Michigan in MAC Quarterfinals

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — Just 19 hours prior to the opening tip of the first game of the Mid-American Conference Quarterfinals, it was announced that fans would be barred from attendance due to concerns of the spread of Covid-19. The only people in the stands were to be immediate family.

But, early in the third quarter, when the Bobcats needed a boost the most, a surprise showed up behind their bench.

The Bobcat men had come to lead the small group of Bobcat fans in attendance and they cheered, chanted and celebrated as boistriously as any student section has for the women all season.

Ohio used the cheers to push their lead out to double digits late in the third and never faltered, going on to defeat Western Michigan 84-75 on Wednesday afternoon in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

“Having (the men) there kind of gave us an edge,” Ohio guard Erica Johnson said. “They were loud and their energy helped.”

The men in the stands were loud because the women on the floor gave them a reason to be. The Bobcats (19-11) hit highlight shot after highlight shot in the second half to put away the upset-minded Broncos.

PHOTO: Michael Roth/WOUB

With Cece Hooks battling foul trouble starting in the middle of the second quarter when she picked up her third foul, Johnson, the newly-named All-MAC first teamer, took over. 

“I just want to do everything my teammates need me to do,” Johnson said. “We’ve experienced that quite a bit during the regular season, she’s aggressive, she picks up fouls. I knew I needed to step up.”

After Hooks went to the bench, Johnson did that and more. She closed the third quarter on a tear, scoring eight of the ‘Cats final 17 points, and didn’t let up in the second half.

Johnson went on to score a game-high 28 points, hitting on 6-of-11 3-point attempts, while grabbing 11 rebounds and tossing out five assists. As it happens, 28 points was just enough for Johnson to reach 1,000 career points, becoming the sixth Bobcat to reach that milestone under Bob Boldon.

“We’re a little bit spoiled at times by what our athletes can do,” Boldon said. “She’s certainly one of them.

“She stayed in control (of the game) the entire time. She was spectacular.”

Johnson kept Western Michigan (18-13) defenders on their toes all game long with her repertoire of moves. Crossover dribbles, dribble drives and step-back threes were just a few of the things that the Broncos fell victim to.

PHOTO: Michael Roth/WOUB

And when it wasn’t Johnson, it was the Bobcats’ longest tenured player, Amani Burke. 

Coming off of her best performance from 3-point range in over two months against Miami in the season finale, Burke topped it by shooting 4-of-6 from deep, including going 3-of-3 in the second half.

Burke finished the game with 20 points, her best scoring night since late January.

“Amani’s been through it all, she played a lot,” Boldon said. “This tournament hasn’t been so kind to her. She gained experience and, sometimes for as good as Erica and Cece are, that senior leadership and senior experience is very, very valuable.”

Burke has failed to win the MAC Tournament in her career despite making it to Cleveland each year with the Bobcats being seeded no lower than fifth.

“Absolutely,” Burke said when asked if she had a bit extra drive for this year’s tournament. “It really means a lot to me. I know last year it meant a lot to me, but this year is just like, this is way different.”

Even with the great offensive output the ‘Cats got from Johnson and Burke, Hooks was still able to make her presence felt, finishing with 14 points and four rebounds despite only playing 19 minutes.

“It’s part of the way we’re built, to try to be able to sustain things like that,” Boldon said. “Erica was spectacular tonight, but Erica doesn’t have to be spectacular for us to win on Friday and that’s kind of the idea behind it.”

With the specter of Covid-19 hanging over the athletic world, the MAC Tournament was anything but normal. The Bobcats, however, were completely unfazed.

“I think not having fans there and like the band and the cheerleaders didn’t really affect us,” Johnson said. “I think we create our own energy.”

But now, the energy created Wednesday needs to be sustained through Friday. As the Bobcats appeared out of their tunnel for the first time prior to their game, they watched as Toledo took down the top-seed Central Michigan.

That Rockets team will be the one Ohio faces for the right to go to the MAC Championship for the second consecutive year. That game will tip at 11 a.m. on Friday.

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PHOTO: Michael Roth/WOUB