The lights came on after the starting lineups, and Ohio huddled in front of its bench. The starters were preparing for tipoff, but the group had two newcomers.
As the huddle dispersed, starting guard Amani Burke, who was out for the game, encouraged Cierra Hooks and Gabby Burris. Hooks and Burris — two freshmen who usually are the first players off the bench — were making their first career starts Saturday.
“Just told us to keep our heads on straight and play like we normally play,” Burris said Burke told them.
“And she prayed for us,” Hooks said.
Hooks and Burris both had career games against Ball State: Hooks scored a career-high 28 points and Burris scored a career-high 19 points to help lead Ohio to an 80-76 win in The Convo.
With Burke out, Hooks and Burris were in a strange spot. Hooks plays 25.1 minutes per game and Burris plays 23.5.
But being a starter was different.
“We were sitting there on the bench together and we’re like, ‘Wow, this is weird,’” Burris said. “Because we’re normally behind the bench just standing there with the lights off listening to coach from behind.”
Throughout this season, Hooks and Burris haven’t played like freshmen. They’ve fit seamlessly into coach Bob Boldon’s system. Hooks is a deft point guard, and she’s able to blow past defenders for buckets. She’s also Ohio’s best defender; Hooks can beat opponents to a spot and even sometimes rip the ball away from them for steals.
Burris boasts a variety of skills on offense. She can drive to the hoop and score. But she can also space the floor and make 3-pointers. She’s also good at grabbing rebounds and putting them back up for buckets. On the defensive end, she can read defenses and sometimes steal the ball. And she is often in the proper position to take charges, too.
In a game where the Bobcats were outscored 29-15 in the third quarter after leading 39-20 at halftime, Ohio needed its top freshmen to succeed.
And Hooks and Burris gave what the Bobcats needed and more.
As Dominique Doseck and Taylor Agler fouled in the second half, Hooks needed to make sure she didn’t commit another foul. Freshman forward Alexis Stover guarded the ball, which allowed Hooks to not be in situations that would make her more likely to foul. When the Bobcats needed baskets to seal the game in the fourth, Hooks made 10 free throws as the Cardinals fouled to stop the clock.
When the Bobcats needed to maintain the lead in the third, Burris scored eight of their 15 points in the quarter.
The Bobcats' next game is Wednesday against Central Michigan. Boldon doesn’t know if Hooks and Burris will start going forward, but he knows they’re going to get minutes.
“As far as starting them, I think that’s a conversation that I’m going to have with them, just see where they’re more comfortable,” Boldon said.
As Hooks and Burris finished answering questions, Hooks spoke of how she was nervous before the game.
But as the lights came on in The Convo after the starting lineups, Hooks and Burris didn’t feel like freshmen anymore.
“It made you feel a little bit older,” Burris said.