Ohio knew what to expect from Buffalo: tough rebounding and plenty of shots from forwards Javon McCrea and Mitchell Watt. But Ohio used a more unconventional approach to dodge the Bulls Friday night and earned a trip to the Mid-American Conference Tournament title game against Akron.
The Bobcats got double-digit points from two reserve players, including 13 from sophomore forward T.J. Hall, who saw increased playing time with Ohio’s other big men in foul trouble and TyQuane Goard sidelined by academics.
Hall made the most of his minutes by hitting five of his nine shots from the field and three of four from 3-point territory. He also grabbed six rebounds and energized the Bobcats to gut out the win.
Ohio (26-7) completed a three-game sweep of Buffalo in a game that coach John Groce called a “hybrid” of the first two contests.
“I thought the first game we played them, the defense was spectacular,” he said. “Tonight I thought that we were better on offense than game one and better on defense than game two. Players out there making plays on both sides, for them and for us. We’re fortunate enough to finish it off there.”
Ohio got 18 points from point guard D.J. Cooper, including five first-half 3-pointers from well behind the arc. His success then opened other options for the Bobcats in the second half as the Bulls concentrated on shutting down Cooper. He finished with nine assists to help five of his teammates finish with at least eight points.
“I saw that they started putting more eyes on me, so I tried to get my guys involved,” he said.
Buffalo (19-10) derived its offense from Watt, who showed a desire to claim a MAC title in his final season with the Bulls. The newly crowned MAC Player of the Year constantly attacked the paint and occasionally connected from long range in a brilliant 32-point performance. Watt also picked up 11 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive glass.
“Just will,” Watt said of his performance, adding that his success came in spite of Ohio’s defense. “I think they defended us pretty well.”
The Bobcats took an 11-point lead into the locker room thanks to a technical foul called against Watt for hanging on the rim after a dunk with less than two minutes left in the first half. Ohio sophomore guard Nick Kellogg sank the ensuing free throws, and the Bobcats closed the half on a critical 7-0 run.
Watt and Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon said the whistled technical took them by surprise and that Watt hung on the rim to avoid falling on any players underneath him.
“I thought our guys showed tremendous heart of desire,” Witherspoon said. “I’m really proud of them. Our guys were really resilient throughout that entire episode.”
With the win, Ohio set a new program record with its 26th win of the season. That surpassed the 1993-1994 squad led by Gary Trent that amassed a 25-8 record. That team was also the last Bobcat squad to finish the season with single-digit losses. Even if Ohio loses tomorrow and again in a postseason tournament, the Bobcats will not reach the 10-loss plateau.
“It’s a big accomplishment. We’ve been talking about it since spring last year,” Hall said. “We’ve been taking it one game at a time. To get 26 is pretty special.”
Ohio now prepares to face Akron for the third time this season. The Zips (22-10) will be making their sixth straight title-game appearance. The teams have won the last three MAC championships.
Each team protected home court during the regular season, with Ohio earning the latest victory in convincing fashion Feb. 26. The teams last met in the tournament in the 2010 championship game, which Ohio won 81-75.
“It’s a big honor. Two good teams,” Cooper said. “We worked hard all year. We know it’s going to be intense, probably physical.”