Amani Burke entered the training room desperate for aid. Her muscles ached, her head throbbed and her body shivered from the chills that combated her 101 degree fever. 

She needed bed rest, yet all she wanted were fluids. Ohio had a game against Mid-American Conference rival Central Michigan in a few hours, and to Burke, the only thing sickening was the thought of missing it. 

Feeling lightheaded, Burke downed her drinks and as she made it onto the court, her teammates joked that she was destined for a special night, comparable to that of an NBA Legend. 

Ohio has the talent to achieve the goals it set for 2020, but with the bulk of a grueling conference schedule still ahead, are the Bobcats tough enough to get it done?

“A lot of people were joking like ‘wow you’re going to have your flu game like MJ,’” Burke said. 

The flu was too much. Burke scored only seven points and was 0-for-6 from 3-point range — her best spot on the court  — as the Bobcats fell to the Chippewas 73-71.

For how disappointed Burke was about her off night, her teammates, however, spoke highly about her in the postgame press conference.

“She played pretty tough through that,” Ohio guard Cece Hooks said. 

Burke was only doing what the Bobcats trained themselves to do. Play through the pain. No matter what. And there’s been a lot of it going around. While Burke dragged her ailing body up the court, Katie Barker dealt with scarring in her lungs from a bout with blood clots last season.  

Hooks emerged from a tunnel back into the game minutes after her head whiplashed into the hardwood while taking a charge. Redshirt sophomore Erica Johnson picked herself — and her glasses — up moments after they were smacked off her face. 

And she still made the shot. 

“You just got to play through those days, it’s not an excuse,” Johnson said.

Ohio knows that to win its first MAC Championship since 2016 it’ll have to embrace the pain. Players are going to get sick from the weather, fatigued by travel and banged up by the improved competition, but they can choose whether it will derail them of accomplishing their goals. 

The Bobcats aren’t feeling sorry for themselves, though. That’s good because neither do their opponents. Ohio surprised many last season after posting a school-record 30 wins and winning the East Division, but the expectations have grown.

Ohio feels like last season was incomplete. The bitterness of falling short of the conference titles and the NCAA Tournament have inspired the mantra “Unfinished Business.” 

The rest of the MAC saw Ohio was projected to be a top team and have made an effort to topple the Bobcats as much as possible. That is in part to a target on Ohio’s back that every team wants to hit and a desire for the MAC to earn more respect. 

Last season, the MAC had the eighth-best RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) — a quantity used to rank teams based on strength of schedule — out of 32 conferences. Only two teams made the NCAA Tournament, and it could be argued that number should have been doubled. The MAC only strengthened those claims with impressive performances in postseason play. 

This season though, only Central Michigan ranks in the top-50 RPI.  Ohio is the next best MAC team at 82. Even though the numbers don’t support that the MAC is on the rise, coach Bob Boldon personally knows that’s not the case. 

“I think it’s going to be a grind,” Boldon said. “It’s going to be tough.” 

That’s why toughness is so important to the Bobcats. The team was hemorrhaged with injuries last year, but are more equipped for a title run thanks to a deeper bench. Returning sixth player Deesh Beck and transfers Caitlyn Kroll and Maddie Bazelak give the Bobcats extra bodies to throw at physical teams like Central Michigan, Buffalo and Miami. 

On paper, Ohio is a team ready to take the next step. The leadership, the talent and the coaching is there, but when adversity builds will the Bobcats be capable of going through anything to get to their destination? 

“The perfect situation doesn't exist anymore,” Boldon said. “You know we were all in really good shape and felt really good that first game, but the nature of basketball is hard to maintain ... whatever it may be you just have to keep going and going.”

@JL_Kirven

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