Jeff Boals couldn’t stop waving his arms and yelling toward the Bobcats’ home crowd with excitement on Saturday. His players on Ohio’s bench couldn’t stop, either, as they waved towels and turned around to face the raucous scene of fans inside The Convo.
The Bobcats were on the verge of creating one of their first memorable wins under Boals — their first-year coach — in the second half against Akron, who entered Saturday with a case for the best team in the Mid-American Conference.
Ohio, to some surprise, took Akron down to the final seconds in an 88-86 loss that featured a second-half surge from the Bobcats. Ohio trailed by 16 points at halftime and stormed back for 54 second-half points, its most in a half this season.
“It was encouraging to see our guys respond in the way they did,” said Boals, who held an upbeat tone in his words despite the loss. “We’re getting there and we’re doing it. We’re just not consistent enough to win.”
The Bobcats needed this type of game. The score doesn’t show a win, but Ohio (10-10, 2-5 MAC) is in the thick of what could be a demoralizing losing stretch. The Bobcats’ two conference wins have come against Eastern Michigan, who has yet to win a conference game, and they haven’t won back-to-back games since early December.
Yet Ohio didn’t roll over against Akron. Four players — Ben Vander Plas, Jason Preston, Jordan Dartis and Lunden McDay — finished with double-digit points and invigorated The Convo’s crowd despite the Zips’ response to every punch.
The Bobcats never led on the scoreboard, but their second-half resurgence certainly gave the Zips, winners of six in their last seven games, a scare.
“(The Bobcats) played great,” said Akron coach John Groce, who coached the Bobcats from 2008-2012. He added emphasis in his voice when he discussed how Ohio responded to the blows Akron dealt all afternoon.
“They made 3’s, they drove it, they got us on the glass, they posted it,” he said. “I thought they were terrific.”
Ohio’s grip against Akron never weakened despite the scoring outburst of Loren Cristian Jackson, who is not physically imposing at 5-foot-8 but has been the Zips’ most potent player this season. He battered the Bobcats for 35 points, made 13 of his 17 field goals and held a finger to his lips to hush Ohio’s home crowd after almost each of his seven 3-pointers.
“We changed our ball screens late to trap him,” Boals said. “He’s so quick, sometimes he can just get around you.”
The Bobcats, however, responded right back. Vander Plas fought his way through every layup and jump shot that led to his 18 points, which he scored despite sitting for nearly 12 minutes in the first half after he ran into early foul trouble.
Vander Plas’ first-half absence might’ve flipped the outcome. The redshirt sophomore still stepped up for the Bobcats and ensured that they wouldn’t walk away from another conference loss with their heads down.
“It’s frustrating at times,” Vander Plas said, “but I got to do whatever I can to help those guys.”
Ohio needs to use its loss as a confidence booster for February. The Bobcats are set to play Ball State, one of the top teams in the MAC West Division, and other top divisional teams in Bowling Green, Buffalo and Central Michigan.
The Bobcats proved, however, that they can still show flashes of brilliance against any opponent. They competed against Akron, who has the tools to make the NCAA Tournament, and performed well against one of the most seasoned rosters in the conference.
It might not happen every time, but it happened Saturday, and Ohio embraced it with fist pumps, towel-waves and hysteria.
“We still got 11 games left in the conference, then we’re on to the biggest games of the year,” Dartis said. “I think we’ll be ready by that time.”