CLEVELAND — Cece Hooks and Erica Johnson entered their postgame press conference and took a few seconds to gaze into the lights, cameras and electronic backdrop behind them.
“Oh, Lord, I can’t do this,” Hooks said with a smile. Johnson laughed and pointed Hooks to her seat, labeled with a name tag.
The two best friends were flustered as they sat in front of a few reporters, but they looked the opposite — calm and collected — when they combined for 34 points in Ohio’s 72-56 win Wednesday over Northern Illinois in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
It was the duo’s first time playing together inside the spacious Quicken Loans Arena, but they never lost concentration amidst the postseason feel of the building. Johnson finished with 18 points and led Ohio with 10 rebounds, while Hooks scored 16 points and grabbed a team-leading five steals.
The numbers were ordinary for Hooks and Johnson. The former won MAC Defensive Player of the Year and All-MAC First Team honors Tuesday, and the latter won MAC Freshman of the Year and Sixth Player of the Year — the first player in conference history to win both honors in the same season.
Nights like Wednesday were exactly what Hooks and Johnson, former AAU teammates, had in mind when they committed to the Bobcats and wanted to reunite in Athens and win a championship.
They’re not there yet. That’s still two wins away, but after Wednesday’s dominant victory, Hooks and Johnson can feel it.
“It feels special to do it with someone you know and someone who you’ve worked with the longest,” Johnson said.
Hooks and Johnson added another chapter to what’s already been a storybook season for their friendship. They’re the top two leading point scorers of Ohio’s potent offense that carried it to a first-round bye, the Bobcats’ first since 2016, and have flipped the outcomes of games in a matter of minutes with their offensive explosiveness.
That’s exactly what happened Wednesday. Johnson, a redshirt freshman, scored 10 points in the first five minutes, and Hooks, a sophomore, widened Ohio’s lead to 15 points in the third quarter when she made three straight layups in the first three minutes.
Johnson provided the boost in the first half, and Hooks propelled the Bobcats to start the second half.
That’s all coach Bob Boldon could have hoped for from the two guards who have blossomed into one of the most dangerous scoring duos in the league.
“As those two go, we're going to go,” Boldon said. “That's not a secret. When one of them gets it going, it's a good feeling across the board.”
But the job isn’t done yet. Ohio will play the Miami in the MAC Tournament semifinals Friday inside Quicken Loans Arena. Both teams defeated Ohio earlier in the season, found ways to shut down its offense and limit damage from Hooks and Johnson.
It will be even more imperative for the two to stay calm and score if the Bobcats want to clear the next hurdle toward a MAC Championship. Hooks and Johnson are young and have little experience in the postseason, and the Bobcats will be lucky to find another win as easy as Wednesday’s for the rest of the season.
They both know, however, that the Bobcats will only go as far as they take them.
“It’s special,” Johnson said, “but we’re not done yet.”