CLEVELAND — The man who typically has so many words sat in silence Friday night.
When he spoke, the words came slowly, often shielded behind wavering lips and a battered heart.
Saul Phillips could’ve offered so many excuses. It’s no secret, the barriers continued to pile as the season progressed. But he didn’t.
Instead, as the postgame press conference unfolded, Phillips was colorfully blunt — a concoction of accepting bitter reality and his warm, personable self.
“If you’re men, you handle it,” he said of Ohio’s 68-66 loss to Kent State in the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals.
Had Ohio been able to get a shot off on its final possession, the third-year coach might’ve been reminiscing on the romanticism of March: the late wins and painful losses.
The Bobcats won Thursday night courtesy of a game-winning shot from Kenny Kaminski with 7.8 seconds remaining. Following the win, Phillips congratulated Kaminski on the moment, acknowledging most players will never experience such a significant shot.
“March isn’t about fairness,” Phillips said. “It’s about making a play and Kenny made a big play.”
Simmons was unable to make that play Friday.
In truth, it felt like the first moment all season Simmons was unable to do something. After all, Simmons, more than any other player, made sure Ohio fought through Antonio Campbell’s injury, through the regular season, through the first game at The Q.
He finally hit a wall. And as Ohio’s unlikely run always had an ending, that moment happened to come sooner than Phillips and his players would’ve hoped.
March isn’t about fairness.
But in fairness, Ohio’s loss to Kent State didn’t sum up the season. What defined the season was the passion, the resiliency and the grace with Ohio handled the adversity every game.
Before the year began, Phillips knew he had the pieces to craft something special, possibly the first MAC title and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012. There was excitement.
As the season continued, Phillips remained excited, even when it was apparent behind the words there was fear and vulnerability. Somehow, despite losing the conference player of the year, the Bobcats remained in the same second-seed as they had been all along.
Simmons kept encouraging teammates to push further. Kaminski forced his influence in games, becoming even more of an inside threat with Campbell’s absence.
Jordan Dartis, other than his time in Cleveland, was Ohio’s best 3-point shooter, a reliable threat opponents could never contain. Gavin Block remained as consistent as a buoy. Jason Carter, who minimally impacted the scorer’s sheet in non-conference play, seemingly became the face of the front court.
Ohio was a legitimate team, just like it always had been. But, as the semifinals loss revealed, without Campbell, the Bobcats were never a complete team.
“The whole time what’s been amazing it how they refused to let losing a league MVP as an excuse,” Phillips said Friday.
The Bobcats handled it as much as they could. And for that, they should be proud.
Getting to the conference semifinals was never about luck. Ohio earned its wins and its losses. The ultimate irony, however, was how badly the Bobcats needed that luck the final •4.1 seconds of their season.
But it never came. March isn’t about fairness.