CLEVELAND — Ohio knew it needed to play a perfect game to beat Miami in the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals.
The Bobcats struggled mightily to put away the RedHawks in their two previous meetings this year, and Friday’s rematch shouldn’t have been any different. Ohio’s starters expected another shootout, one that looked like their last-minute finishes March 6 in Oxford or Jan. 30 in Athens.
But the scene Friday inside Quicken Loans Arena was much different. Instead of Ohio battling in the final seconds against its biggest rival, its starters were on the bench. Actually, they had been on the bench for the last four minutes.
That’s because the Bobcats, specifically their defense, played a perfect game and bludgeoned the RedHawks 74-48 to advance to the MAC Championship game for the first time since 2015. Ohio’s defense held Miami to its lowest score in a game this year and enabled its offense to score 70 or more points for the fifth consecutive game.
The Bobcats were always a team that went as far as their offense took them. That didn’t change Friday, but they proved they could win a lot more than a MAC Championship when their defense never slips.
“In the past, we’ve won games because we scored more points than the other team,” coach Bob Boldon said with some sarcasm. “It wasn’t because we guarded as well as we could have. I thought tonight, we guarded as well as we could have.”
The Bobcats were plagued by Lauren Dickerson in previous meetings with Miami. The junior guard is only 5-foot-3, but she single-handedly severed Ohio’s game plan with 18 second-half points in Miami’s 25-point comeback on March 6.
But Dickerson couldn’t save the RedHawks on Friday. The Bobcats limited her to five points, tying a season-low, by pushing her to the left side of the court to ensure her shot selection was limited. Dickerson tended to shoot from the right side in previous games, and the Bobcats thought switching the floor would make her uncomfortable.
It did. Of the 20 shots she attempted, just two fell in.
“For me, I was like, ‘Man, it works,’” •Amani Burke said. “We usually don’t focus on those little things as well as we should. Just to see that, it was like, ‘Let’s keep doing it.’”
With Dickerson shut down, the rest of the RedHawks struggled to shoot as well. Miami shot 31 percent from the floor and made just three 3-points in 20 attempts.
The RedHawks typically lean on Dickerson for assists and opening space for other shooters when she struggles to score, but the Bobcats defense controlled that as well. Dickerson finished with zero assists for the first time all season.
“I thought that was probably (Dickerson’s) toughest challenge today, to be able to find that second gear or get her assist totals up,” Miami coach Megan Duffy said. “(Ohio’s) defense was absolutely stifling at times for us.”
Ohio played as close to a perfect game on defense as it’s played all year, but it could be even better. Cece Hooks, who won MAC Defensive Player of the Year, recorded zero steals for only the fourth time this year.
It didn’t matter. Erica Johnson and Gabby Burris combined for seven steals, but because the Bobcats were so crisp in defensive rotations and limiting the RedHawks’ shot selections, they didn’t need Hooks to flip the game with steals that generated into fastbreak points.
They could just wait for Miami to miss shots.
“It’s what you hope for as a coach,” Boldon said. “It’s what we need to win games this time of the season.”
The Bobcats will need their defense to step up again Saturday. Buffalo owns the No. 3-ranked offense, right behind Ohio, in the conference and scored 85 and 82 points in its two games in the MAC Tournament. The Bulls beat the Bobcats 73-43 in their last meeting on Feb. 27.
Now, Ohio’s defense has clicked. If the Bobcats perform anywhere near the same level on defense, their season is far from over.