CLEVELAND — Ohio waited as the final seconds drained off the clock in the Wolstein Center. After the final buzzer sounded, Ohio players and staff slowly filtered off the court and made their way behind a towering green curtain that cut the arena down the middle toward their locker room.
Ohio had beaten Cleveland State 67-56, but it was an uncomfortable win.
Coach Jeff Boals expected discomfort ahead of Saturday. Ohio had played Cleveland State last season in The Convo and whipped them without much effort, but that was almost a year ago. Ohio’s roster had been shaken up since last season while Cleveland State returned much of its core lineup.
If the Bobcats wanted to win, they needed a fresh approach to handle the Vikings.
“We knew coming in, this was gonna be a tough road game for us,“ Boals said. “I think the biggest thing I'm proud of is we played a different style of play that we did on Tuesday and we still won the game.”
The adjustments didn’t come easy. Ohio was sluggish from tipoff. Sloppy passes became turnovers. Hurried shots missed their mark entirely. Ohio played a tug-of-war with Cleveland State over a one-possession lead for the first seven minutes of the game until Ben Vander Plas sank a 3-pointer that spurred Ohio on a short 9-2 run.
Ohio began to pull away, but couldn’t shrug off its early slump. It entered halftime without having made a basket in over three-and-a-half minutes. It only retained a double-digit lead due to Cleveland State missing every shot except for a free throw in that same time frame.
Ohio knew it had to work around a Cleveland State roster that wasn’t afraid of being physical. Ohio had been able to outlast Belmont on Tuesday by sticking to the perimeter and relying on 3-pointers, but that strategy wouldn’t fly on Saturday. Cleveland State preferred a hands-on approach. It shoved Ohio around and preyed on sloppy passes to force 12 turnovers by the end of the game. Cleveland State cashed those turnovers in to put 20 points on the board.
“I think the way they play,“ Boals said. “They reach, they grab, they smack, and we knew coming in that’s how it was going to be. So to have 12 turnovers against that pressure and the pressing and trapping, I thought that was really good.”
Cleveland State never let Ohio keep the ball in one place for too long. It couldn’t just rattle off shots like it did against Belmont. Cleveland State had Ohio in a vice and smacked the ball away with ease.
So the Bobcats switched up their style.
Instead of trying to find an open look for themselves, the Bobcats hustled passes among each other to find a clear shot. This approach clicked, and field goals came easier. The Bobcats ended the game with 22 assists on 24 field goals made.
“We were moving the ball a lot, guys got open shots, Mark (Sears) did a great job distributing the ball,“ guard Miles Brown said. “We got a lot of cuts and 45-cuts got us open. So, we shared the ball today.”
The ball-sharing saved the Bobcats. Eight different Bobcats made 3-pointers Saturday. They shot 38.7 percent from 3-point range Saturday, and half of their field goals were sank from beyond the arc. Had the Bobcats not been so reliable from long range, Saturday might’ve ended on a different note.
Ohio wasn’t dealt an easy nonconference schedule. Cleveland State is the favorite to win both the Horizon League Championship and regular season titles, and even made a brief appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season. The majority of its lineup had even returned from last season. It’s aggressive on defense and laps up turnovers.
But Ohio was forced into an uncomfortable situation, and it managed to stay upright.
“The way they play, they just make you play basketball,“ Boals said. “They trap, they deny, they switch. And I thought our guys, for not really seeing that, did a great job of handling everything.”