Jeff Boals implemented a temporary tweak in practice for Ohio this week.
He was seeking a fix for the Bobcats’ second-half woes, which cost them in their last game Saturday when they blew a 15-point halftime lead against Bowling Green, one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference.
So, at the halfway point of practice Monday, Boals ordered his team to go to the locker room. They were going to simulate a real in-game halftime. Players could use the bathroom and drink water for the first five minutes of the 20-minute break before coaches would discuss halftime adjustments.
“Do I need to yell at you?” Boals said to his team during the intermission. “Because I will.”
He didn’t need to, but it worked for the next game.
The Bobcats took down Buffalo 80-69 Tuesday for their biggest win of the season. Ohio didn’t have any severe lapses in the second half and secured a win that could go a long way toward the Bobcats playing a home game in the first round of the MAC Tournament.
“That simulation helped us prepare for tonight,” sophomore guard Jason Preston said. “We can’t blow leads. We got to come out in those first four minutes and keep doing what we did in the first half.”
That’s what the Bobcats did against the Bulls, who entered Tuesday as one of the top teams in the MAC East Division and were in position to secure a first-round bye for the MAC Tournament.
Ohio went into halftime with a sizable — but far from satisfying — 80-69 lead over Buffalo. The Bobcats led 31-26 at halftime in their last meeting against the Bulls, too, but lost by three points after they were outplayed in the second half.
This time, Ohio kept it together. It wasn’t easy after Buffalo benefitted from 10 free throws on five shooting fouls that built a slim 15-9 scoring run to begin the half. The early fouls slowed down Ohio’s pace and could’ve rattled the Bobcats into a familiar second-half rut.
But then Ohio answered with an 11-2 run. Lunden McDay and Preston each added a free-throw and a pair of points to extinguish any danger, and the Bobcats felt as though they were in cruise control for the rest of the night.
“It was weird from a calls standpoint,” Boals said. “(Buffalo) put so much pressure on you where they put their head down and drive, so they’re going to create contact. We tried to limit their drives. I think those officials do a great job, and they have a hard job.
“But I think our guys have a lot of confidence. The event happened, so what’s your response going to be?”
The response was a second-half effort that boosted the Bobcats to a win that should capture attention around the MAC. Ohio had come close but had yet to beat one of the MAC’s top-tier teams before Saturday night. Close finishes against Akron, Bowling Green and the previous meeting against Buffalo have loomed over Ohio all season.
Now, the Bobcats can forget about it.
“We played a full 40 minutes, and we haven’t really done that yet,” Preston said as he looked up from the stat sheet in front of him and smiled. “It’s great to do that.”
Oddly, the Bobcats dropped back a position in the MAC standings after Eastern Michigan lost Tuesday to Northern Illinois, which broke a three-way tie between Ohio, EMU and Toledo. The Rockets defeated the Bobcats on Jan. 21, which is why Ohio loses the tiebreaker with Toledo and falls from the eighth seed — the final position to secure a first-round home game — to ninth.
It’s OK, though. The Bobcats can make big strides toward reclaiming that home game if they win two of three games against Kent State, Akron and Miami.
Strong second-half finishes will go a long way to accomplishing that, and the Bobcats finally did it Tuesday against a quality conference opponent.
The halftime simulation in practice gave them their boost.
“It was something different,” Boals said. “It was something for them to think about, and it really helped them lock in mentally for the second half.”