Elbows swung, hands smacked and bodies hit the floor.
It sounds like a street fight, but on a cold Friday night outside The Convo, it was anything but frigid on the court.
The tensions rose like heat waves off the hot pavement on a summer day, but none bigger than with five minutes and 17 seconds left in the game.
Lunden McDay toed the free throw line in his gray Adidas shoes. He was calm and cool, breathing slowly to settle himself down in one of the biggest moments he had been thrust into.
Two feet diagonally from his left was Sylvester Ogbonda, hunched over with a straight face in preparation to grab another rebound on the chance that McDay missed.
In the moments prior to the ball leaving McDay’s hands, Kent State’s junior forward Danny Pippen told Ogbonda he was going to elbow him.
Pippen swung hard as if he were in a brawl. Ogbonda screamed in anguish, pain and disbelief.
Coach Jeff Boals led the charge in an explosive and profanity-filed tirade at the referees, the Golden Flashes’ bench and anyone who wasn’t wearing green and white.
After a brief review, Pippen’s personal foul was upgraded to a flagrant 2. His exit put Ohio into another level of play in its 76-69 win in The Convo on Friday night.
McDay, who’s started in 26 of Ohio’s 29 games, came off the bench for the third consecutive game with a newfound sense of purpose. His starting spot, lost because of an ankle sprain in a shoot-around prior to the Bobcats’ game against Bowling Green on Feb. 22, never soured his approach to his game.
And it showed down the stretch against the Golden Flashes.
He scored eight points in the final five minutes of the game each coming in a critical moment.
The aforementioned free throws gave Ohio a two-point lead. His 3-pointer at the top of the arc stalled Kent’s 4-0 run. Another free throw further separated the Mid-American Conference East Division teams. And his final bucket, a second-chance layup, was the final basket scored from Ohio that wasn’t at the foul line.
As important as he was on the offensive end, his two steals turned into three more points for the Bobcats in an effort that wasn’t unnoticed.
“I just played my game and just let it come to me,” McDay said. “I’ve got great guys around me, we wanted to do this for them, and we did.”
The physicality in the final five minutes was rampant from the opening tip-off when there was some light pushing and shoving from three pairs of players around half court.
Aggressive dunks were sprinkled throughout. Forceful blocks and hard fouls were commonplace between the in-state rivals.
The difference, however, was Ohio’s poise under duress. Instead of arguing with the officials or hanging their heads, the Bobcats gathered their composure and just played.
With a team that features just two seniors, it appeared as if they had been together for longer than just one season, but on this night, it was McDay who commanded a veteran presence as a freshman.
“He’s not playing like a freshman,” Boals said. “It was good to see him out there because he’s such a tough kid. He hit a big shot and big free throws, got on the floor for a loose ball. Those are the kind of plays you make to win games.”
And that’s what McDay did.
He made those plays and showed his basketball prowess. He’s been built for this, however. He’s a two-time state champion from the storied Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary program. He’s been called upon since he first arrived on campus in the summer. And after 29 games, he’s shown that even though as a freshman, he deserves the attention that perhaps a junior or senior would garner.
His performance gave the Bobcats another win they need down the stretch. It’s their second win over an opponent that’s currently seeded higher than them in the MAC Tournament standings. Before Friday’, Ohio was the No. 8 seed.
But now with wins over Buffalo and Kent, things could change rapidly if the Bobcats are able to continue their winning ways.
Even with their “one-day” mentality, Boals made note of how Friday’s win is going to affect the standings. Projected to finish last in the conference in the preseason coaches’ poll, Ohio has put itself in a spot to host a game in the first round.
Whether it’s been strong starts or throwing the final figurative punch in a tight game, Ohio has found ways to not only keep the heat on, but how to dial it to the next degree.