Updated Sat, Mar 3, 2012 8:23 pm
In a game Ohio had to win to ensure themselves of a bye in next week's MAC tournament the 'Cats did just that Saturday afternoon, beating the Miami Redhawks, 63-54 at Millett Hall in Oxford.
From the start, you could tell which team was playing for a tournament bye and which team was simply playing to close out its regular season schedule.
The Bobcats came out of the gates revved up on defense forcing 11first half Miami turnovers while holding the Redhawks to just eight points over the first 12 minutes to build its largest lead--12 points--by the 7:48 mark.
"I was wondering how our defense was going to be off the start, " coach Groce said after eluding to the change in game-time from Friday to Saturday. "Once I saw us guarding the way we were guarding, I thought 'ok we got it.'"
Coming into the contest D.J. Cooper needed just two assists to become Ohio's all-time assists leader. The feat was accomplished at the 5:09 mark when Cooper fed Hall inside the paint for an easy lay-up, making the score 22-11 Ohio.
"Its a big accomplishment for me and my teammates and coaches," Cooper said afterwards. "My coaches put me in great positions and I've got some great teammates who can finish and play hard and I just do my best to find them."
"Heck of an accomplishment for D.J.," said teammate Nick Kellogg. "Just speaking for my teammates, we're really happy for him. He's a great passer and thats the bottom-line. He makes guys better and its a treat to play with a guy who does that."
"There's been a lot of good players to play at Ohio University," his coach said after. "For him to break that record before his junior season is even completed is an amazing accomplishment."
The final five minutes of the half weren't near as strong for the 'Cats as Miami closed on a 13-6 run to pull within four, 28-24. Setting up what would be a more competitive 2nd half.
Keying the Bobcats attack in the 2nd half was power forward Jon Smith. Smith was a force in the final 20 minutes, collecting offensive boards, slamming home put-backs, and altering shots on the defensive end. His final basket with 7:39 remaining put Ohio up 11, 49-38. Smith finished with 13 points and seven rebounds, drawing praise from his coach afterwards.
"I thought the play of Jon Smith today was terrific," said Groce. "It may be as a good a game as Jon has played all year on both ends."
Of Smith's seven boards, a game-high six came on the offensive end where Ohio collected 15 of its final 34 rebounds compared to Miami's 26. The extra possessions lead to 14 second chance points for Ohio which was key in helping the 'Cats maintain their lead throughout the game.
"I thought our attack on the glass was as important as anything today," Groce said.
Joining Smith in double-figure scoring was Cooper and Nick Kellogg. Cooper finished with a game-high 14 while Kellogg poured in 10 despite shooting 1-of-6 from distance, showing a more versatile attack as the guard was 3-of-3 from inside the arc.
"I struggled shooting the ball today," Kellogg said about his three-point shot. "I haven't looked to attack as much in the past, but I thought their hedges gave me the opportunity today to get in the lane and drop some floaters."
Despite leading by 10 points with just over six minutes left Ohio couldn't put Miami totally away. The Redhawks did its best to not go away, eventually closing the gap to 4, 52-48 with 2:22 remaining. But as the clock became more of a factor and fouling became the only way to slow it down, the 'Cats converted by hitting 11 of its final 12 foul shots and 15-of-17 for the game eventually wrapping up the victory, 63-54.
"That was my main focus today," Cooper said. "We knew how important this game was today and we wanted to give ourselves the best chance in the tournament."
"Knowing we got the bye was a huge relief," said Kellogg. "We knew what this game meant, we try not to let other things affect the way we play, but I think that [possibly falling as far as 5th with a loss] was in the back of our minds but we got the job done today."
By winning, Ohio assured themselves of no worse than the number three seed without needing the outcome of Eastern Michigan's game with Toledo to go its way. The only scoreboard watching of importance was Buffalo's matchup with Bowling Green. A Bulls loss would have granted Ohio the number two seed in next week's tournament, but Buffalo beat the Falcons 68-64, cementing Ohio as the number three seed. Ohio will play Thursday at 9:30 in Quicken Loans Arena.