CLEVELAND — Gabby Burris stepped back with the ball behind the arc in the fourth quarter of the Mid-American Conference Championship Game against Buffalo. The Ohio fans inside Quicken Loans Arena roared as Burris raised her arms and released a shot that would cut what was once a 21-point deficit to five.
In that moment, the Bobcats were surging. Then Summer Hemphill, the 6-foot-1 Buffalo forward, reached up and tipped the ball just enough for it fall a few feet in front of the hoop and into the hands of a Buffalo defender.
The players who rose from Ohio’s bench before the shot sat back down. The fans behind them followed. They all stayed in their seats for the final four minutes as the Bobcats’ offense returned to the same struggles it had in the last three quarters against Buffalo’s unbreakable defense.
Those struggles were what ultimately doomed Ohio of a MAC Championship. The Bobcats fell 77-61 to the Bulls on Saturday after their offense fell victim to the Bulls’ stout, suffocating and stiff defensive plan.
“(Buffalo’s) defense is good,” coach Bob Boldon said. “It’s unique in how they guard us, and it’s especially tricky when you have 20 hours to get ready for it.”
Ohio’s offense was the reason why it even made it to the MAC Championship Game. It was a shock when the Bobcats started the season in the top-15 in the nation in scoring, and it felt like it was only a matter of time before they crashed back to the same level as other mid-major teams. But then they stayed there.
By Saturday, Ohio still sat at No. 16 in the nation in scoring offense. No team had consistently shut down the Bobcats’ versatile attack, which dominated teams beyond the arc and below the hoop. Opponents picked which section of the floor Ohio could shoot from, but it usually wasn’t enough to stop the Bobcats.
Buffalo was different. Its defense overpowered every part of Ohio’s attack, and it didn’t matter if Cece Hooks drove to the hoop or Dominique Doseck pulled up for 3. With three of its six primary players standing over 6-feet tall, Buffalo had a swift answer.
The Bulls knew the most important player to stop on Ohio was Hooks. When the 5-foot-8 guard, who led the Bobcats with 17.5 points per game entering the game, dominated opponents with drives to the hoop, the rest of Ohio’s offense clicked with her.
No team, however, proved more capable of stopping Hooks this year than Buffalo. On Feb. 27, Hooks scored a season-low one point in a 73-43 loss to the Bulls. It was Ohio’s lowest scoring game of the year.
Buffalo approached Hooks the same way Saturday. Its defense simply had the height advantage over Hooks when she hustled her way to the hoop before she was attacked by the Bulls’ interior defenders. Hooks left the first half with 10 points, but four of her seven drives ended with the ball rolling off the rim, bouncing off the backboard or missing entirely.
Ohio turned to its other options. Amani Burke and Doseck, the Bobcats’ premier 3-point shooters, needed to counter Buffalo’s assault from beyond the arc. The Bulls broke a season-high for 3s in one game when Cierra Dillard hit Buffalo’s 12th 3 in the third quarter.
At that point, though, Ohio’s 3-point game was stagnant. The Bulls ignited the crowd with each 3 that inched them closer and closer to MAC Championship. The Bobcats, who entered the fourth quarter 6-of-20 from beyond the arc, dipped their heads and hustled to the other end of the floor as their contested attempts clanked off the rim and into the hands of the Bulls.
But as the third quarter ended, things briefly flipped. Buffalo’s defense slowed down. Hooks suddenly found holes and scored nine points in three minutes, and then the Bobcats hit three consecutive 3s.
Ohio had a 15-6 run. Boldon called a timeout as the Ohio fans who were silent for the previous 35 minutes roared in approval. The comeback, which seemed impossible when Buffalo led by 20 halfway through the third quarter, was on.
Then it wasn’t. Burris attempt at Ohio’s fourth consecutive 3 on the next sequence was blocked, and as cheers for Ohio died down, the Bobcats’ comeback went with them.
Buffalo’s defense was back, and Ohio missed shots and chased rebounds until the buzzer sounded, signaling an end to the Bobcats’ offensive reign on the MAC.
“(The Bulls) are too good,” Boldon said. “They're going to keep winning as long as there's games to be played. It doesn't matter if it's us or anybody else, there's not much you can do about it.”
Ohio will wait and see if it makes the NCAA Tournament. With two MAC teams predicted to secure a bid, it will likely have another chance to show its offensive prowess again.
But Ohio missed its chance against Buffalo.