Updated Fri, Mar 15, 2013 3:43 pm
The final buzzer sounded on March 2 in the Alumni Arena in Buffalo, NY. The scoreboard read, “Buffalo 81, Akron 67.”
The Bulls had upset the No. 24 team in the country in their own building, giving the Zips their first Mid-American Conference loss of the season, something the Ohio Bobcats weren’t able to do a few days earlier.
First Team All-MAC selection Javon McCrea scored 26 points against Akron’s All-MAC frontcourt of Zeke Marshall and Demetrius Treadwell. In his previous game, where the Bulls lost in overtime to Kent State, McCrea had nearly a big man triple-double with 32 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks. The 6-foot-7 forward was dominating some of the top MAC opponents.
An improving Buffalo and an even better McCrea didn’t bode well for Ohio, who was set to travel to the Alumni Arena on March 5. The Achilles’ heel to the Bobcats’ success this season has been guarding big men and road tests. They were facing both three days after the Bulls had upset Akron.
And the game didn’t start the way Ohio coach Jim Christian had desired. With 13:06 on the clock in the first half, the scoreboard favored Buffalo, 19-9. There needed to be a change. The Bobcats were flat. There was zero energy on the floor that night.
Enter Stevie Taylor.
Taylor has become known around Ohio University as the energy guy, on and off the court. Whether he’s dancing in the middle of the huddle or doing his self-named celebration “cashbox,” famously called the goose-eye, after a made three, Taylor has become a fan favorite because of his non-stop energy.
That’s what Taylor does. He changes the pace of the game. When he entered the game against Buffalo, he immediately made his mark. Within a minute of subbing in for D.J. Cooper, Taylor had put in two buckets, one coming off a steal, and had helped Ohio narrow its deficit to six.
Buffalo never again had a 10-point lead and the Bobcats ended up taking the five-point advantage at half, with 18 points coming from the bench. Would Ohio had won that close game on the road had Taylor not gone in and changed the momentum? Would they be the Co-MAC Regular Season champions? Nine times out of ten, the answer to those questions is a plain, “No.”
The back up point guard has been playing well in his past two games, averaging 7.0 points and 2.5 steals in just 13.0 minutes of play. He’s had memorable moments that define his career, including a game-winning three against Kent State in overtime.
“He’s (Stevie) just playing with a lot of fire. That’s what you want to see,” Christian said. “He’s playing with a lot of energy, a lot of fire. One thing about him that’s been great is he’s not afraid to make plays, not afraid to take the big shot, and that’s what makes him a great player.”
As for Taylor, he understands his role as the energy guy off the bench. It’s something Christian told him at the beginning of the year, and he has accepted the backup role to Cooper’s MAC Player of the Year season. The energy comes naturally for the 5-foot-10 guard.
“I would just say me as a person and how I was raised, you know. Being a little guy, little guys gotta have energy, just for stuff like that,” Taylor said. “When the team’s down, I just look at everyone and say well, ‘I gotta get called upon to do what I gotta do.’”
Energy and experience is what ultimately separates Ohio’s bench from other teams in the conference. The projected bench lineup for Friday night’s game has started a combined 142 games throughout their careers at Ohio, 47 of those belonging to Jon Smith.
It has been an up-and-down year for Smith, who started the first 11 games, but struggled and was moved to the bench to make room for Reggie Keely in the starting lineup.
Smith’s forte is his energy in games. When he wasn’t contributing that energy, the Bobcats struggled. Christian said often times during practices how his team needed him. They needed the forward to play his game.
For a stretch of games, the shots weren’t falling. His defensive energy wasn’t there. It was a different Jon Smith.
“I try to approach every game with the same mentality. You know, just sometimes the ball doesn’t fall your way. It seemed like for a stretch there, it wasn’t falling my way,” Smith said. “You just keep going hard and every time I come up there, my number’s called, I go hard.”
Like Taylor, the Bobcats would have been a different team this season if the redshirt junior had not stepped up his intensity on both sides of the court. There’s also some doubt if the Bobcats would’ve been the regular season champs had Smith not given them the boost they needed on Senior Day against Miami.
Ohio was down nine with 10:37 left in the game when Smith left his mark on the game. Following a missed three by Cooper, Smith pulled down one of his six offensive rebounds and put the shot back up immediately and got the second chance points. Above all, he was fouled.
Smith went to the line with Ohio down, 44-37. If he hits the and-one, he puts the Bobcats back in business. But Smith missed the free throw. Several players accept the miss and drop back on defense with the “get them next time” mentality, but Smith wasn’t done.
He pulled in his own missed free throw and put it up for two. Smith performed the oddest four-point play, but just like that, Ohio was only down five and went on to win the game behind Smith, who finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and two blocks.
He did all that he could to help the team.
“Offensive rebounding, defense, and energy. All three in one,” Smith said on his strengths. “I think I do them to the best of my ability. Every game, I bring that.”
There have been several adjustments for Smith, which attributed to his tiny slum. With his experience, though, he believes his transition has been easier than it would have been for younger players.
“Being alert,” Smith said on the differences between starting and coming off the bench. “When you’re starting, you’re just starting off on the game, you’re already in the game. When you’re on the bench, you can sit there for a stretch of five to seven minutes to 10 minutes and you’re like, ‘Whoa.’ You’ve just gotta stay in the game. For the younger guys, it’s hard.”
When Christian goes to the bench, he finds players that offer different skillsets to the game. With a team that’s 10 players deep, which is rare for the nation let alone the MAC, Christian loves having a variety of players to go to in big situations.
“I think in a game, you lose things and gain things. No two players are the same, so when Stevie comes in, you get an increase in energy, and when Jon comes in, you get an increase in rebounding, more activity on the defensive end of the floor,” Christian said. “When Ricardo comes in, you get a guy that can offensive rebound the basketball and drive it. Everybody that comes in brings a different strength, so I think that’s kind of what you need to have.”
Christian believes his bench will perform just as well in the tournament as they did in the regular season. He expects nothing less from an experienced, energized bunch.
“I think our bench has played really well all year,” Christian said. “We’ve had different guys step up in different games I thought that sparked the team, so it’s going to be pivotal because you have 80 minutes of basketball if you want to win a conference tournament championship, so everybody is going to be needed.”
As the Bobcats enter the semifinals Friday night in the Quicken Loans Arena, the bench play will be key to Ohio’s success. The bench averages 3.15 more points in wins than they do in losses. The team doesn’t want their senior class to go out without a MAC Tournament title, which would be their third in four years.
“We’ve been here. We won it last year. We know what it takes,” Taylor said on his team’s expectations. “As long as we do what we’ve gotta do and listen to the game plan, we’ll be fine.
“We’re trying to win this.”