CLEVELAND — In the weeks leading up to the Mid-American Conference Tournament, Ohio's position as one of the top contenders for the MAC Championship title had fallen into a precarious position.
The Bobcats limped into the postseason as a battered No. 3 seed. They'd dropped four of their final five games of the regular season. Exhaustion from a grueling February slate was apparent. Two of their losses came against teams that hadn't even qualified for the MAC Tournament.
But before the Bobcats took the floor against Ball State on Thursday night inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, coach Jeff Boals deliberated with his players. They'd been locked in to the MAC Tournament since mid-February but had been predicted to reach the postseason for much of the year.
Reaching Cleveland wasn't the goal anymore. Staying in Cleveland was.
"I told them, I said 'You earned the opportunity to play up here, and you have to go prove that you belong here,'" Ohio coach Jeff Boals said. "The sense of urgency I thought was there."
The Bobcats proved Boals right. Ohio throttled Ball State 77-67 in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament and ensured their trip to Cleveland wouldn't be just an overnight visit.
It didn't come easy. The Bobcats stumbled before they sprinted to the finish. The first-half lapses that had become commonplace in the Bobcats' final stretch of the season reappeared. The Cardinals slipped ahead early after tipoff while the Bobcats sputtered through the first five minutes. Easy shots clanged off the rim while the Cardinals drilled shots from beyond the arc.
But Ohio roared back.
It didn't even wait until halftime to recoup. It didn't need to. Mark Sears, who'd been quiet throughout the early minutes of the game, scored 10 points in the five minutes before halftime. Once Sears found a groove, the rest of the Bobcats weren't far behind. They pelted the Cardinals with lengthy scoring runs and locked down on defense to widen the gap. Whatever lingering insecurities remaining from the regular season evaporated by the second half.
Ohio wasn't playing like a new team. It was playing like Ohio.
"We got stops, got in transition and found our rhythm," Sears said.
The Bobcats found an aggression that had been absent from their past five games. They knocked the Cardinals around at the boards and outrebounded them 48-38. The Bobcats have struggled all season to maintain a strong presence when rebounding, but they found success Thursday night. That success at the boards translated into points on the board. Four of the Bobcats scored in double figures, and Jason Carter racked up 18 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the year.
For the first time in almost a month, the Bobcats were playing at the level expected of them.
"I thought we had a good edge to us," Boals said. "I think if you look back the last couple of weeks we lost at (Bowling Green) by three and at Northern (Illinois) by one, both one-possession games. And I thought we came out and competed."
There's no telling how long Ohio's sudden return to form will last. Ball State, while still a threat, was the No. 6 seed. Ohio was expected to move on to the semifinals.
Thursday was Ohio's best performance in almost a month. It was far from perfect, and the Bobcats still have to endure another day before it can imagine even competing in the MAC Championship game.
Regardless of whether or not Ohio's postseason runs extends beyond the semifinals, it has proven it belongs in Cleveland.