As Ohio’s lead began to crumble in the closing moments Sunday, coach Saul Phillips searched for his calmest player on the floor.
In the face of Western Kentucky’s swarming full-court press, someone needed to take the ball and shoot free throws to ice a win. Without shooting guard Jordan Dartis, an 88-percent free throw shooter out with an injury, Phillips found forward Jason Carter — who’d only just returned from injury the game before.
“It’s been default, late in the game, get the ball to Jordy for free throws,” Phillips said after Ohio’s 89-84 win over Western Kentucky at The Convo. “I saw a calmness in Jason that made me want to give him the ball for free throws down the stretch.”
After carrying a double-digit lead from the 14-minute mark of the second half down to the final two minutes, the Bobcats entered survival mode to grab a bounce-back win after losing by 25 to Maryland on Thursday.
Phillips needed to take a breath before talking about the closing stretch.
“I’ve still got post-traumatic stress syndrome after that one and I can’t comment,” he said. “I’m a little jumpy here.”
Western Kentucky forward Marek Nelson sunk a three with 2:04 left to cut Ohio’s lead to 10 points. That’s when things started unraveling for the Bobcats.
Ohio forced an inbound pass into the key, where the Hilltoppers harassed forward Gavin Block and stole the ball. Then Nelson hit another three.
A successful inbound to Ohio guard Teyvion Kirk led to a quick foul and put Kirk at the free throw line, but he missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Then Kirk turned it over on the Bobcats’ next possession, leading to a layup for Western Kentucky that shrunk Ohio’s lead to five.
So Phillips turned to Carter, who didn’t start and played limited minutes as he continued working back from a lower right leg injury and a cold. When the next inbound pass went to Carter, he was fouled and promptly sunk both free throws.
Still, the Hilltoppers charged back. With 11 seconds left, Carter was back on the line with Ohio clinging to a three-point lead. Again, he hit both.
The Bobcats scored 31 of 35 free throws, which dwarfed their previous high this season (17 made free throws against Indiana State in four overtimes).
“Hopefully we can ride this a little bit,” Phillips said. “Because if it had been anything less than that, it would’ve gotten real scary late.”
Ohio will hope to take momentum from its free throw shooting and add Dartis back into the mix, who Phillips had identified as a game-time decision heading into Sunday.
Dartis missed the game with a foot injury, snapping a 57-game streak in which he played 25-plus minutes all but three times.
As he cheered from the bench, the Bobcats worked to replace his production.
“I’d say same way we’ve been getting by the whole start of the year when guys are out,” said guard James Gollon, who had a career-high 13 points. “People just step up.”
Five players reached double-digit points, including forward Kevin Mickle with 17 in his first start at Ohio.
The Bobcats (5-4) almost let it slip away. Instead, they’ll head into their final road non-conference game Saturday at Marshall (7-3) on the heels of an encouraging win.
“You can make silly plays and still be a very smart basketball player,” Phillips said. “That happened a bunch to us down the stretch and made life way too interesting. It would’ve been an absolute crime for us to give that bad boy up after how we played the first 35 minutes.”