John Groce paced the sideline as Dustin Ford crouched a few feet behind him.
Both, in unison, were yelling to their Akron team to get back on defense after knocking down a 3.
Both Bobcats of the past weren’t in Athens to celebrate The Convo’s 50th birthday celebration, either. The duo instead dismantled the Bobcats, 65-53, in front of a season-high crowd of 7,887.
Groce walked up and down the same sidelines he did seven years ago, when he and D.J. Cooper had Athens in a frenzy en route to a Sweet Sixteen berth. Ford crouched feet away from where he used to drain 3-pointers for the green and white on a day where Ohio finished 5-of-21 from beyond the arc.
Groce’s beating of Ohio in his second season at Akron served as a reminder to Ohio fans of the days when Groce led the Bobcats to NCAA Tournament berths.
“This place means a lot to me and my wife,“ Groce said. “My nine-year-old son was born here at O’Bleness. We had a great run here, but as neat as the run was, it’s the people. We saw a lot of people last night at the hotel and throughout the day today. The relationships you build in the process over the period I was here is something I’ll forever hold onto.”
In his fifth season at the helm of the program, Saul Phillips has had time for roster turnover. Every player on Ohio’s team is who he recruited.
Teyvion Kirk, who was 4-of-13 from the floor, including 0-of-3 from 3-point range, is one of them. The Bobcats were down just nine at the start of the half. A strong defensive possession from Ohio, which included a Doug Taylor block, gave the Bobcats the ball with over 19 minutes left to start their first offensive possession of the second half.
Off of an inbound pass due to a personal foul, Kirk launched a 3-pointer right in front of the Ohio bench. No good, followed by another missed 3 by Gavin Block. On the other end, the Zips answered with a 3 of their own.
Fast and simple, Ohio was down by double-digits just a minute into the second half.
Groce’s team was the more athletic Saturday afternoon, leading the entire game. Akron’s second-best MAC defense controlled the paint, double-teaming Taylor in the paint.
While the shooting was miserable for the Bobcats, the Zips pressure oriented defense seemed to frazzle Ohio in the first half, forcing them into sloppy situations. Ohio star Jason Carter admitted that the Bobcats looked as if they lacked confidence and weren’t prepared at the start of the game.
No matter what the excuse was, Groce’s squad outplayed Phillips’ squad for the full 40 minutes.
“Obviously a great crowd and environment today,“ Groce said. “I can’t control all that stuff. We try to control what we can control. That was our effort and execution.”
Phillips didn’t make excuses for his team’s poor performance, even though he could’ve. He’s without sharp shooters James Gollon and Jordan Darts for the rest of the season. Dartis knocked down a career-high 38 points in the last meeting with the Zips. Gavin Block cramped up early in the second half with a full body cramp and never returned.
Ohio now sits at 11-10 on the season and 3-6 in the MAC, dropping its second-straight game.
Ohio didn’t score for spurts of three minutes throughout the game. There were sequences when the Zips would get behind the defense easily, leading to dunk and then steal the ball back just moments later. Akron led by as many as 26 midway through the second half.
So, now the Bobcats find themselves in unchartered territories. Bobcat fans showed up as strong as they can, with a packed “O Zone” and the lower bowl of The Convo completely filled Saturday afternoon.
Phillips is in the last year of his current contract. Rumors will being to swirl about his return to Athens next season, but that didn’t matter Saturday afternoon.
Neither did the celebration of The Convo.
What mattered was the return of John Groce to The Convo, and how with every loss to Akron, Ohio fans will be reminded of the past. Of Sweet Sixteen appearances and MAC Championships.