CLEVELAND — Jaaron Simmons pounded the scorer’s table. Gavin Block raised arms over his head in disarray. Kenny Kaminski held his waist, his eyes glued to the floor.
Ohio’s final shot, as well as its shot at a conference title, never came.
With 4.1 seconds remaining and Kent State leading by two, Simmons dribbled the length of the floor, only to slip into a trap. When he tried a last-second back-pass to Jordan Dartis, the clock had already expired.
The Bobcats lost 68-66 on Friday night in the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinal at The Q, ending Ohio’s improbable run at the first conference championship since 2012.
“I mean, it’s over,” Simmons said. “It’s over now. There’s nothing you can do to get it back.”
But the Bobcats were so close to getting it.
The preseason pick to win the conference, expectations changed Jan. 16 when Ohio announced Antonio Campbell, the reigning MAC Player of the Year, had a broken foot. With his career cut short, Ohio’s leader was relegated to a pin in his right foot and a spot on the sideline.
Simmons filled the void — at least as much as he could. But on Friday night, the gap was too wide.
Jason Carter, who’s surprisingly kept Ohio’s fluidity in the front court looked more like a freshman than the player he was tasked to replace. Carter had four points and two rebounds, fouling out with 1:02 remaining.
While Kent State's Jimmy Hall ran riot in the low post, finishing with 22 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons could only do so much in response.
After Simmons led an eight-point comeback in the final 2:14, he had already tied the game with a free throw with 10.8 seconds left.
Seconds later, Jaylin Walker replied with a banked-jump shot to take the lead before Simmons’ final push forward.
“It was just designed to get down the court and make a play,” Simmons, who finished with a game-high 25 points, said of the final sequence. “If it was for me, if I was open, I would have shot it.”
Although he wasn’t open, and the man who’d pushed Ohio so far finally crashed into a wall.
“They had a lot of guys surrounding me,” Simmons said. “I thought I had a little more time and tried to kick it out just because I wasn’t open at all.”
And then it was over; the play, the game and the season. For as close as Ohio came to another conference final, the unlikely run was cut short. It was time to go home.
Sitting in the postgame press conference, coach Saul Phillips lips quivered as he spoke. Despite the multitude of excuses, from Campbell’s injury to players not executing, he sat stoically praising his team.
“This group has been dealing with adversity since January,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve had a group that showed the resiliency and togetherness throughout this whole process. Every fiber of my being is proud of what they accomplished.”
While Phillips, Simmons and Kaminski never said it, the ending felt cruel — an abrupt halt to a success story that often resembled more pride than dominating talent during Ohio’s 20-11 season.
Just one night earlier in a similar situation, Kaminski hit a go-ahead jumper with 7.8 seconds left to push Ohio past Toledo. Kaminski’s shot came from a Simmons assist. In a similar scenario against Kent State, Simmons once again drove up the floor and looked for another hero.
Only this time the scenario ended differently. The unattempted shot ended Simmons' and Ohio's season. It also ended Kaminski’s career.
“I know this,” Phillips said. "Some of you guys that have been around the team all year long, if you don’t concede that this group exceeded expectations after what we went through, then you just don’t like me or the team. That’s all there is to it.”