AKRON — Another first half deficit, their fourth in a row, shrank but never fully disappeared for the Bobcats on Tuesday night in Akron.
On 14 occasions in the final nine minutes, Ohio was either tied or within a basket of the Zips — but Ohio never led, ultimately losing 71-68.
Now, the Bobcats (9-10, 2-5 Mid-American Conference) are alone in the bottom of the MAC East Division, thanks in part to a pair of one-possession road losses in the past two weeks.
“It’s disappointing,” coach Saul Phillips said. “We’ve come to the Akron area here, the greater Akron area (including Kent State), and we’ve lost by a total of four points. That could really change your mood.”
1. Mired by miscommunication
The Bobcats trailed by three with 1:07 left. They had the ball and a plan.
But when Gavin Block dribbled into a corner and couldn’t find space, he threw a pass to the top of the key to reset the play. On the sideline, Phillips was yelling at the refs, at his players, at anyone who could listen: He wanted a timeout.
Moments before, during a video review that gave Ohio the ball, Phillips designed a play for his players. He told them if the play didn’t work, they needed to call a timeout so he could draw up something else.
Instead, Block called for the ball back in the corner as the shot clock wound down. He pumped, lost control, then grabbed the ball and lunged forward to draw a shooting foul — only to whiff on his defender and miss with a hopeless air ball.
“A big mental lapse on our part,” Block said. “That falls on me and I didn’t call the timeout.”
Phillips said there is a rule that forbids coaches from calling timeouts while gameplay is live. Because of that, it had been up to his players to follow his order. They didn’t, and Ohio wasted a possession that could’ve tied the game.
“We can’t have those breakdowns in close games on the road,” Phillips said. “We can’t do it. I’ve gotta obviously communicate it clearer.”
2. Laster lags behind
Ohio guard Mike Laster has been the team’s quiet offensive leader the whole season. On Tuesday, he was simply quiet.
Laster, who entered with the team lead in points per game (15.9), tied a season low with just six points. All three baskets came in the final two and a half minutes of the game, including a garbage time dunk with two seconds remaining.
He recorded his third foul a mere 12 seconds into the second half, forcing Phillips to make a quick substitution. Laster was out of sorts throughout the game, missing his first four shots (including three 3-pointers).
“Yeah, he struggled to get a rhythm tonight,” Phillips said. “Yeah, I think foul trouble certainly has something to do with that but he played for a big chunk of the first half without that foul trouble and he never found that rhythm either.”
The success of the Bobcats is tied rather tightly to Laster’s production. They are 2-8 this season when he scores fewer than 15 points, versus 6-2 otherwise.
To make matters worse, guard Jordan Dartis also had an off night. After leading the way with 24 points in Saturday’s road win over Eastern Michigan, he had just seven against the Zips.
“We need more production out of Jordan and Mike than 13 points,” Phillips said. “Credit them (Akron) for taking that away.”
3. In search of a sharpshooter
Block took Ohio’s two most critical shots Tuesday and missed them both.
There’s a reason he was the one shooting, though. He’d hit six of his first eight 3-pointers, tying a career high, and was clearly hot for the night.
But that’s just it. He was the go-to guy for the night. Two nights ago, Dartis had been in that spot. In other games, it’s been Laster.
Block said he’s comfortable having the clutch plays built around him, though he recognizes that it won’t be his job every time. On a game-to-game basis, no one is sure who Ohio’s sharpshooter will be.
“I think with this team … it’s gotta be by committee,” Phillips said. “Tonight we tried to ride Gavin. Shoot, against Indiana State in the four-overtime game, we tried to ride everybody at some point.”