CLEVELAND — From off-balance 3-pointers to tough teardrop buckets in the lane, Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper willed his team to a 64-63 victory against Akron in the Mid-American Conference tournament title game Saturday. But ironically, the Bobcats counted on a made free throw from Cooper’s counterpart to ice the victory.
Ohio held off a late charge by a determined Akron squad to secure its second MAC tournament title in three years. The Bobcats earned an automatic bid into next week’s NCAA Tournament and will learn their partner in the Big Dance Sunday night.
The win helped Ohio (27-7) continue its historic season that included a best-ever 16-1 record at The Convo and a 13-1 start to the year. The Bobcats’ 27th win also strengthened their grip on the program’s all-time single-season record for victories.
“I owe our kids a lot because they bought in. They were all in all year,” said coach John Groce, who won his second MAC title in four years with Ohio. “They believed they could play their best basketball in February and March, and they were able to do that.”
The Bobcats kept pace with the Zips (22-11) throughout the first half despite Akron’s extraordinary proficiency from long range. The Zips, who were playing in their sixth straight MAC title game, hit four of five first-half 3-pointers and finished the game with a 9-for-12 mark from beyond the arc.
The Bobcats took advantage of 16 Zips turnovers to build a two-possession lead early in the second half. That edge swelled to as many as eight points with 3:31 to go in the game, but Akron still had some will to impose before leaving Quicken Loans Arena.
A free throw by Akron point guard Alex Abreu, a trey by MAC Sixth Man of the Year Quincy Diggs and a layup from 7-footer Zeke Marshall trimmed the lead to one point with 1:43 still on the clock. That score would hold until the final 10 seconds of the game, when Akron guard Brian Walsh missed a jump shot and Ohio forward Reggie Keely grabbed the rebound. Keely was fouled and sank two free throws to give the Bobcats a three-point lead.
With 3.1 seconds to play in the game, Cooper fouled Akron point guard Alex Abreu to send him to the free-throw line. Abreu drained the first free throw before the second teetered on the edge of the rim. At first, an Akron player appeared to tip in the ball to tie the game, but video review showed that no player touched the ball. The free throw was good, and Ohio closed the game with a one-point lead.
Groce said he was certain that a tip-in would not be the final ruling, but he designed a last-second plan anyway.
“It’s either a made free throw or a goaltend,” he said. “I just reminded them, “Don’t flinch. Control what we can control.’ ”
Ohio played half the game without redshirt junior guard Walter Offutt, who got into foul trouble early in the first half and picked up his third and fourth infractions after the break. He finished with two points, two steals and a rebound but came up with several “toughness plays” down the stretch.
“It’s hard watching him sit there. He wants to be out there,” Groce said. “He really is the centerpiece of our defense. You saw him take the charge late in the game. He has been a blessing to our program because we would not be where we are without him.”
Cooper, Keely, junior forward Ivo Baltic and junior guard David McKinley got to cut down the nets at Quicken Loans Arena for the second time in their careers. But for the rest of the Bobcats — a squad with no true seniors — the experience was brand new.
“It’s hard to put it into words,” said sophomore guard Nick Kellogg, who came to Ohio on the heels of its 2010 MAC title and NCAA Tournament run. “To get this win tonight and to advance to the (NCAA) Tournament is a blessing.”
The Bobcats will finish the year with a 6-2 mark against the other top three teams in the MAC. Akron, meanwhile, falls to 4-4 against the other teams that got byes in the conference tournament.
Ohio is now 5-0 against MAC East teams at Quicken Loans Arena in the last three seasons.
The Bobcats will watch the NCAA Basketball Championship Selection Show from Baker Ballroom Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Fans are encouraged to attend the watch party.
Cooper said he would not mind rematch against Georgetown, which Ohio upset 97-83 in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, but he welcomed all challengers in the Big Dance.
“Hopefully we get a good pick,” he said. “Hopefully we’re not too low on the totem poll.”
MAC Tournament Championship Game
OHIO 64, Akron 63
— Cooper: 23 points, 6 assists, 4 steals
— Abreu (Akron): 19 points, 7 assists, 2 steals
— The Zips shot 9-for-12 on 3-pointers