Bob Boldon’s message following Ohio’s game on Saturday was short and clear. 

“We need to be better,” he said.

Ohio (13-7, 6-3 Mid-American Conference) had just lost to rival Central Michigan, 92-90, in overtime.  The Bobcats missed shots (36-of-86) and were without starting guard Amani Burke, yet they still had chances to pull off the upset. Ultimately, Central Michigan’s resilience made a difference. 

It wasn’t the first time Ohio was short against the Chippewas. Central Michigan (16-4, 9-0 MAC) handed Ohio its only home loss of the season on Jan. 8. That game came down to the final moments too, but resulted in a 73-71 Ohio loss. 

Losing both winnable games was a lot to process for the Bobcats on the six-hour bus trip back to Athens. Ohio has lost three games in the conference by a combined score of five points. Had a Gabrielle Bird 3-pointer not fallen or one more defensive stand against Western Michigan happened, the Bobcats could be walking tall in first place.  The real stinker for Ohio, though, was the realization that Saturday’s loss severely shrunk its championship hopes.

There are still nine games remaining, but Ohio’s chances at its first MAC title since 2016 seem small. 

Had Ohio beaten the Chippewas, the Bobcats would only trail Central Michigan by one game in the standings. The loss pushed the gap to three games. Ohio also won’t see the Chippewas again in the regular season, so its fate is far from being in its hands. 

That somber reality was felt Monday at practice. There wasn’t any joking from the often playful and loose group. Drills were run with an edge, and players, like redshirt sophomore Caitlyn Kroll, stayed behind to practice extra shots. 

The Bobcats know the chances aren’t favorable. They know the likelihood of Central Michigan losing four of its last nine are fractional, but the Bobcats also know a few other things: They’re better than what their .650 record portrays, and that improvement is imminent. 

“It’s definitely frustrating for the team,” Kroll said. “We just got to keep getting in the gym and working harder.” 

Hard work will be needed for Ohio to get the most out of a season that started with elevated aspirations. The Bobcats entered the season with the mantra “Unfinished Business” and the mindset that the job wouldn’t be done without capturing the goals that eluded them last season: A MAC Regular season title, MAC Tournament Title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. 

Saturday’s loss puts a damper on that first goal, but Ohio is still confident that this season’s targets are within reach. 

“We still have a goal to be MAC Champions,” Kroll said. “…We can still be tournament champs.” 

A tournament title would give Ohio the chance it’s craved to prove itself in the NCAA Tournament, but Boldon doesn’t want Ohio looking a month into the future. The Bobcats have a tough road game on Wednesday against Eastern Michigan, and that’s where his focus is. 

“For me, it’s just about wanting to win the next game,” Boldon said.

Boldon said that he never gets too wrapped up in who the Bobcats are playing down the line. He knows that a favorable stretch for the team is coming up soon, though. 

Ohio’s traveling schedule this season has been brutal. Aside from the Ohio State game in November, the Bobcats haven’t had an in-state road game. Trips to New York, Texas, Tennessee, Michigan and Illinois throughout the week would wear out most college basketball teams, but after Wednesday’s game in Ypsilanti, Ohio’s final stretch is either all home games or in-state trips no farther than a three-hour drive. 

Another important date in Ohio’s schedule is its bye next Wednesday. After facing Kent State on Saturday, Ohio will have time to recover and rest the entire week until its matchup with Miami in Oxford on Feb. 15.

It’ll take more than just a break and some reduced travel for Ohio to hit its stride over the month. 

Boldon said he wants the team to improve its efficiency on offense and be better at forcing teams into bad shots on the defensive end. He’s seen improvement in the Bobcats rebounding, a stat that the Bobcats often struggle in, but thinks they can be even better. 

The MAC regular-season title doesn’t seem likely this season for the Bobcats, but if they embrace the work and finish the season strong, that business might finally become finished. 

“I’ve challenged them to do it,“ Boldon said. “They want to do it, but we’ll see if we can do it.” 

@JL_Kirven 

Jk810916@ohio.edu