CLEVELAND — During tournament time, many players who excelled in the regular season falter under the pressure, especially freshmen.
But not Erica Johnson.
Ohio’s redshirt freshman excelled in the biggest moment of her young career Wednesday evening at Quicken Loans Arena, as she led Ohio to a 72-56 win over Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference quarterfinals. Johnson finished with a double-double (18 points and 10 rebounds) and set the tone early for the Bobcats.
“I think any player wants to get going early,” Johnson said “So once I saw my first few shots go in, kind of dictated my game, I knew I could keep attacking and get what I wanted.”
In the first minute of the game, Johnson pulled off a 5-0 personal scoring run to give Ohio (26-4, 14-4 MAC) an early lead. Once the point guard found her confidence shooting 3s, NIU (19-13, 10-8 MAC) couldn’t figure out how to defend the combo guard.
Johnson’s scoring was able to open up players such as Amani Burke (12 points), Cece Hooks (16 points) and especially sophomore forward Gabby Burris — who led the Bobcats with 19 points.
Burris, who’s played through a lower leg injury since late January, returned back to her early season form on Wednesday and it gave the Bobcats another boost.
“I'm just glad to have Gabby back,” Johnson said. “Like she gave her all today, she was doing everything, rebounding, playing great defense, scoring offense.”
With Johnson and Burris playing at a high level, Ohio entered the half with a 12-point lead.
But that lead was far from comfortable for Ohio coach Bob Boldon. The last time Ohio led NIU by 12 in a quarterfinal it lost 72-71 two seasons ago. So Ohio had to continue to keep up the pace.
“I worry about everything,” Boldon said. “It's a long basketball game, and obviously you would like to get off to a good start, but just because you got off to a good start doesn't mean you're going to win the basketball game.”
In the second half, Johnson’s scoring cooled off, while Hooks took her place as the offense’s engine. The MAC Defensive Player of the Year often converted steals into points and was a major reason why the Huskies, despite guard Gabby Nikitinaite’s game-high 23 points, never sniffed the lead.
Even though Ohio led the entire game, when the clock ran out there was a feeling of relief. The Bobcats notched their first quarterfinal win under Boldon and can unwind until they play Miami on Friday.
“It's about rest and recovery at this point,” Boldon said. “We're not going to change what we do. We've won a decent amount of games doing things the way that we do them. So we'll rest, we'll recover, we'll prepare.”