Ohio forward Kevin Mickle reached in front of a pass and intercepted it easily, pushing the ball ahead in perfect stride on the way to Coppin State’s basket.
Crowd noise swelled as he thundered into the paint. Most fans probably anticipated a power dunk, which he’d already displayed earlier in the game. Instead, he laid the ball in off the backboard, a microcosm of his night — not showy, but effective — in his return from a knee injury.
“How do you not dunk that if you’re Kevin? I mean, come on,” coach Saul Phillips said after Ohio’s 80-37 drubbing of Coppin State on Friday. “But I think he’s learning to trust that leg a little bit still. Most importantly, he didn’t report any pain after the game or during the game. That’s a really good sign.”
Mickle, who’d been sidelined since leaving early Nov. 19 against Indiana State, sported a black brace on his right knee. He played 15 minutes — about nine fewer than average — and posted 15 points (6-for-8 shooting) with five rebounds, two assists, a block and three steals.
“Pain-wise, out of 10, I give it a zero,” Mickle said. “Today, we wanted to play a limited time with me, so 15 minutes was good.”
He added that lateral movements, particularly to the left, are what put the most strain on his knee. But as the game wore on, he looked increasingly comfortable moving in all directions, leading fast breaks, jumping for rebounds, clogging the paint and sprinting to the perimeter to defend shooters.
The brace, which Mickle said he’ll wear the rest of the season ahead of “minor surgery” next spring, affects his ability to bend his knee. But on an instance where he was fouled under the basket and hit the floor hard, the brace proved its worth.
“On the foul when the player pulled me down, I actually landed on (the brace) and my knee shifted,” he said. “And then the brace just brought it right back. …That actually boosted my confidence about the brace.”
Confidence is key for Mickle at this point. Phillips tested that confidence in the second half when, with the Bobcats holding a 25-plus point lead, he opted to play Mickle for six more minutes.
“I even checked in with (staff athletic trainer) Annika (Bailey) at halftime, saying, ‘What do you think we should do with him this half?’” Phillips said. “And with his injury, it’s just a pain is tolerated thing. … You can’t gain that confidence unless you expose yourself a little bit. He passed with flying colors tonight.”
Ohio hopes Mickle is the first of a cavalcade of forwards returning this month.
“We have no boots on our bench anymore,” forward Sam Frayer said. “No scooters. No slings. So that’s always a good sign that there’s no extra equipment.”