In the five games leading up to the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament, Ohio began to slowly gather momentum. The Bobcats seemed to finally be clicking — and at just the right time.
Northern Illinois made sure to cut off that momentum. The Huskies ended Ohio’s season abruptly on Monday night inside the NIU Convocation Center, beating the Bobcats 80-61 to advance to the MAC Quarterfinals on Thursday against Toledo.
Ohio will now go home with its first back-to-back losing seasons since 2002-03 and 2003-04, and questions about the future will be plentiful.
“I think we have a lot of pieces to be positive,” coach Saul Phillips said on the Ohio IMG Radio network after the game.
It wasn’t positive Monday night, though. The Bobcats were down 22 at one point, and each time they tried to cut into the Huskies lead, NIU had an answer. The lead hung around 16 for most of the second half. Ohio just couldn’t respond with a large enough run to get back into the game.
Ohio had won three of its last five games before the MAC Tournament started, and came close to winning the other two as well. Three wins over Bowling Green, Akron and Miami helped steer Ohio’s season into the right direction, while the close losses, to Kent State and Buffalo, reminded the Bobcats of how well they can play.
But Tuesday night, it wasn’t there. Everything done in the last two weeks was put on hold. Offensively, the Bobcats looked like a team lacking confidence. They shot 13.3 percent from beyond the arc and 40.8 percent overall.
“If you dig a big enough hole, it’s tough to get out of,” Phillips said.
Defensively, the Bobcats struggled to defend Eugene German and Dante Thorpe. The duo combined for 41 points. The Huskies made nine 3s, and they continued to put stress on the Bobcats throughout the game.
“They certainly hit some tough ones,” he said.
But now, the game is over. Ohio’s season is over. And the questions will begin to be asked. The pressure will be placed of athletic director Jim Schaus. The direction of the basketball program will be in flux.
The laundry list of offseason questions to answer include: A coach with an expiring contract, two key seniors who will be graduating, a young roster that has shown potential to be great.
What to make of all that?
That starts with the Phillips question, one Schaus will have to answer before any other questions can even be fielded.
Those questions can begin to be answered now, all because Ohio’s season was ended by Northern Illinois on Monday night. But did Saul Phillips’ tenure end with the loss? That remains to be seen.
Jason Carter, the Bobcats’ leading scorer this season who had 14 points, loves Phillips. He wants to play for him. That’s why he kept playing until he fouled out late in the second half.
The young players love playing for him. They trapped and pressured NIU throughout the second half, even with the steep deficit, one too steep to climb out of.
Senior Doug Taylor views Phillips as a father figure, and he loved playing for Phillips during his four years in Athens. Taylor finished his career with a 20-point, 11-rebound night, trying to extend his career at least one more game to Cleveland for the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament.
“He just went out with a flurry,” Phillips said on the radio interview.
But the Bobcats couldn’t find a way back into the game and fell to the Huskies for the third time this season.
Now, they’ll go home with plenty of questions to be answered.