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Ohio’s Cece Hooks dribbles up the court during the MAC Championship Game on Saturday. (photo via Maddie Schroeder/Ohio Athletics)

Women's Basketball: Ohio falls to Buffalo 77-61 in MAC title game

CLEVELAND— Blue and green streamers floated down from the rafters, the sound of a school's fight song played triumphantly and the crowd’s cheers at Quicken Loans Arena sounded like thunder. 

But none of it was for Ohio. 

In fact, the Bobcats didn’t see anything from the scene following Saturday morning’s Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship. They were the quietest group in the gym as they left the court in a single-file line seconds after a 77-61 loss to Buffalo.   

Ohio had zero interest in watching the Bulls hoist the trophy or the hats on their heads that read “MAC Champions.” 

They couldn’t bear to see what could've been. 

Ohio entered the game exuberant. It was playing for its first MAC Tournament title since 2015 and for an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. The Bobcats were as hot as the fire that flowed out of the jumbotron following the announcement of the starting lineup. After beating Northern Illinois and trouncing Miami, only Buffalo stood in the Bobcats way. 

But the Bulls were too much. 

In each game in the tournament, Ohio struck first. That streak continued on Saturday. Amani Burke hit a 3 and seized an early lead. Ohio then capitalized with tough defensive stands against the Bulls’ best player, Cierra Dillard. 

Ohio thought that if it could slow down the nation’s second leading scorer that it would have a chance. The Bobcats quickly discovered it wasn’t that simple.

“We focused on Dillard a lot,” Cece Hooks said. “But wasn't quite aware — I mean, we were aware, like Coach Bob said, ‘10 and 12 can shoot’ but we didn't think they was going to come out on fire like that. 

Buffalo’s Hanna Hall and Courtney Wilkins showed Ohio that Buffalo was much more than just Dillard. The two drained multiple momentum stealing 3-pointers, and made Ohio feel like it could choose how to be scored on. 

Hall and Wilkins led a 17-2 run and Ohio fell behind. Every possession the pressure grew heavier, every miss felt more gut-wrenching and every foul became more frustrating.

Down 13 early in the second quarter, the Bobcats — who are usually all smiles on the court — couldn’t hide their irritation. High fives became wrist slaps, and nods of approval became glares of an approaching loss.

But Ohio continued to play the way that got them to the championship. Burke kept shooting, Cece Hooks kept driving and Erica Johnson kept diving for rebounds.  The Bobcats started to steal back some momentum as they hoped to enter halftime with a single-digit deficit.  

But Buffalo was stingy with its momentum. 

With three seconds remaining in the half, Hall drove through the heart of the Bobcats before finding Wilkins behind the arch. The swish of the net was in perfect cadence with the sound of the buzzer. 

Ohio entered the half down 43-28. 

The Bobcats hoped to enter the second half better than it exited the first. But now it was finally Dillard’s turn to terrorize Ohio. The MAC Tournament MVP hit a 3 to start the third quarter, adding to what would be a 22-point, four rebound and five assist stat line.  

Ohio responded to Dillard’s 3-pointer with buckets of its own, but it forgot about Hall again. A costly mistake. 

“The margin of error is so small that victory's going to favor the people who probably shoot it a little bit better and make fewer mistakes,” Ohio coach Bob Boldon said. 

Midway through the third quarter, Ohio started to find its footing on defense. The Bobcats made life difficult for Dillard and ensured that Hall and Wilkins had no open looks. 

But once the Bobcats figured out one problem, another one took its place. 

Junior Summer Hemphill dominated the Bobcats on the glass. She finished with 16 points and 21 rebounds — a MAC Tournament record. The 6-foot-1 forward extended possessions for Buffalo and was the main reason for the Bulls’ 24 second-chance points. 

After a quarter full of problem-solving, Ohio entered the fourth quarter down 13. It was desperate for a break. 

It would finally found one. 

Hooks started the fourth quarter with her trademark possession. A steal and then a coast-to-coast lay up. It was the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year’s first steal of the game. 

Ohio’s band started to warm up while the bench started to clap. 

With 6:54 to play, Hooks hit a 3-pointer from the corner to weaken Buffalo’s lead to 10. She was willing the Bobcats back into the game, right after she picked up her fourth foul. Bobcat fans were cautiously optimistic. 

Ohio couldn’t afford to lose Hooks, so somebody had to step up. 

With one second remaining on the shot clock, Gabby Burris heaved up a shot from half court and banked it in off the glass. Thirty-one seconds later, Dominique Doseck hit another 3 to bring Buffalo’s lead to eight points. 

The tubas blasted notes while the bench erupted with excitement. 

Boldon stood on the sidelines impressed with his team’s determination. 

“Yeah, that was really good to see because we haven't been down that much that often,” Boldon said. “I thought they handled themselves really, really well.”

But Buffalo refused to let Ohio come back from what was a 21- point deficit and take its championship away.    

Dillard went after Hooks and drew the final foul. Hooks fouled out the game with a game-high 24 points. It was the final blow to Ohio’s championship dreams. 

With Hooks out, the Bobcats were unable to stop the Bulls from going on a 9-0 run in the final minutes. 

The band stopped playing and the bench stopped cheering. 

Moments after the final buzzer, Ohio was already halfway in its locker room. Boldon told the team that he was proud of them. But the Bobcats didn’t want a pep talk. They wanted the win. 

They wanted the hats; they wanted the trophy. 


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