Mike Laster leaned his head into his hands, allowing the weight of the game to press on him.
He’d played well, with 24 points in a game-high 46 minutes, while nursing an injured left shoulder that popped out of place four days before.
But the spotlight was on Laster, a senior guard, for a different reason after Ohio’s 101-98 double-overtime loss to Central Michigan on Saturday. He missed four free throws — three of which had altered the game.
“It’s not really a good feeling, for real,” Laster said, clutching his Gatorade bottle and speaking in a hushed tone. “I missed my free throws, should’ve made them.”
With five seconds left in regulation, and the game tied at 77, Laster drove hard to the net and drew a blocking foul. He missed both free throws off the front rim, drawing a collective gasp from most of the 8,000 fans at The Convo.
But the Chippewas missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, which sent the game to overtime. Ohio coach Saul Phillips approached Laster in an attempt to clear Laster’s head.
“I tried to refocus him right away,” Phillips said. “You can still make plays.”
Down to his team’s last possession of double overtime, trailing 98-96, Phillips put the ball back in Laster’s hands. Laster finished on a layup under the net and drew a foul. The Convo erupted.
Then Laster’s ensuing free throw hit the rim and fell off to the left. Central Michigan secured the heart-thumping win at the other end, with three free throws of its own.
The game held similarities to a 93-88 loss to Iona in late November, when the Bobcats missed critical free throws in the closing seconds of a comeback that fell just short. Amid conference play, last-place Ohio (9-13, 2-8 Mid-American Conference) can ill afford the repeated circumstances.
“We’ve had situations where we’ve made some pretty big free throws this year, too,” Phillips said. “I know this: the more you stay in there late in games on the line with things on the line, the more comfortable you become, usually.”
The Bobcats didn’t simply miss free throws in the clutch. They shot 16-of-31 (51.6 percent) from the line throughout the game, which is their fourth-worst mark of the season.
That number was amplified by Central Michigan’s free throw success. The Chippewas hit 31 of 36 attempts (86.1 percent), including 14-of-17 in the overtime periods.
Ohio may feel the sting of irony for how this loss, its seventh in eight games, came about. For just the second time since November, the team shot better than 50 percent from the field. Yet spotty shooting from the free throw line produced enough of a wedge for Central Michigan to succeed.
The focus should fall on all the players who contributed to Ohio’s abysmal free throw shooting. None shot better than 60 percent.
But Laster, for all he did in an otherwise excellent performance, will wear most of the blame.
“I know what Mike goes through to play,” Phillips said. “I know that he plays every possession worrying that that shoulder is gonna pop out. You can be disappointed in the result and not mad at the kid. That’s easy. That’s real easy.”