Mark Sears leaned forward in his chair while answering questions during Ohio’s post-game press conference. His answers were brief, and he remained cool and collected despite playing the best game of his career in Ohio’s season opener.
Sears, in just his sixth collegiate start, totaled a career-high 27 points and shot 90.9% from the field to lead Ohio to a 92-80 victory over Belmont on Tuesday. He missed just two shots all night and sank all four of his 3-point attempts.
The sophomore wasn’t known as a deep threat last season. Most of his production came from up close, and his 3-point attempts were only successful 27.5% of the time.
But Sears put a swagger behind his long-range shots Tuesday. When presented with an opportunity, he took it.
He wasn’t the only one. The Bobcats were sinking 3-pointers with ease. Three other Bobcats aside from Sears shot 50% or better from beyond the arc.
“It’s just shooting with confidence and putting in extra shots,“ Sears said. “Your work? Trust it, and it’ll always pay off.”
Shooting with confidence was Ohio’s philosophy heading into Tuesday. Coach Jeff Boals hammered the idea into his players’ heads and wanted the words to stick. They couldn’t get caught up on the what ifs of missing shots against the Bruins, who were picked to finish first in the Ohio Valley Conference Preseason Coaches Poll. If Ohio wanted to win, it needed to shoot with confidence.
The coach’s words stuck. Ohio shot 43.2% from beyond the arc Tuesday, and 48 of its points were from 3-pointers.
In practices leading up to Tuesday’s game, Boals and his staff emphasized shooting from the perimeter. If Ohio tried to play close to the rim, Belmont’s defense might shut them down. Instead, Ohio limited its rotation to just eight players, and it focused on finding open shots from beyond the arc instead of fighting Belmont in the paint.
The Bobcats were 16-of-37 from 3-point range, their best completion rate since their game against Buffalo in the Mid-American Conference Championship last season.
“That was a big key coming in because they’ve got such great shooters around them, and they do such a great job of playing off of them,“ Boals said. “So, we knew we had to give up something, and so we wanted to give up a tough, contested 2 instead of a wide-open 3.”
Belmont tried to wrestle control from Ohio in the second half. It took advantage of several scoring droughts and exchanged the lead with Ohio six times in four minutes. But Ohio stuck to its guns, and a 3-pointer from Jason Carter started an 18-4 run that set its first win of the season in stone.
Belmont had been to the OVC Championship game in its past four seasons, and it returned all but a handful of reserves from last year. It was old, experienced and built up a repertoire for a high-scoring offense. But Ohio didn’t care. It rattled off 3-pointers while Belmont sputtered in the final minutes.
The Bobcats don’t care about last season. They’re the team to beat in the MAC this year, and Boals wants all eyes forward. They’re staring down a treacherous nonconference schedule, and they’ve only played one game.
“I kind of liken it to a MAC Championship game from day one,“ Boals said. “That's the type of level of game that it was and the opponent that it was ... and as long as we kind of have that mentality of game by game, you know, and not get too far ahead of ourselves, which I think our guys do. I think we've talked about before: the maturity of this team is what I really took out of this summer and fall.”
Ohio is taking its first steps into the season with caution. One game isn’t a gauge for success, and it needs a new plan twice a week in order to build off its first win of the season.
But it had a plan for Belmont, and it was simple: stick to the perimeter, and shoot with confidence.