It wasn't easy. Hell they almost blew it. But in the end the No. 2 seed Ohio Bobcats (24-8, 14-2) beat the No. 3 seed Western Michigan Broncos (20-12, 10-6) and advanced to the Mid-American Conference tournament finals Saturday night at 6:30 pm on ESPN2.
Led by star senior D.J. Cooper, the 'Cats played a gritty second half, culminating in a 74-63 victory. Cooper, as he seems to do every March, shined. Much to the annoyance of the Broncos head coach Steve Hawkins
"I personally will be at his graduation. I'll watch him take the walk across the stage, I'll shake his hand and say, 'good riddance.'" - Steve Hawkins
It wasn't just his ability to to come up with those unbelievable passes that earned him the title as "the best passer in the game," he was on fire all around. Connecting on 10 assists, Cooper hit on 4-of-6 from behind the arc to scorch the Broncos for 21 points. But he didn't do it alone. Walter Offutt added 14 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two steals as he and Cooper teamed up to seal the game for Ohio late in the second half.
When the game started, all cylinders seemed to be rolling for Ohio. After Broncos guard Austin Richie tied the game up at 8 all with 15 minutes left in the first half, Ohio took charge. Over the next 10 minutes Cooper connected on his first two shots, both 3-pointers and dished out six dimes during a 26-7 Ohio run. Everyone was getting in on the fun, including sharpshooter Nick Kellogg who's often struggled to get going offensively this season.
The 'Cats up-tempo half-court offense was working to perfection. They connected on 63 percent of their shots to start the game, a huge turnaround from their woeful shooting against Miami last Saturday. Their defensive intensity seemed to be causing fits for the Broncos as well and they limited Broncos big-men Shayne Whittington and Darius Paul to just eight points and five rebounds combined in the first half. At halftime, Ohio was up 17 points and had the game all but wrapped up.
But then, as they've often done this season, the 'Cats came out sluggish and sloppy to start the second half. Behind a stellar offensive performance by Paul, who according to his coach had spent all day hooked up to IV's recovering from food-poisoning, the Broncos cut Ohio's once-large lead to just two points, 46-48, with 10 minutes left in the game. Paul finished with 16 points, 12 of them coming in the second half.
As we've come accustomed to seeing in the postseason, Cooper threw on his superman cape, and along with Offutt and some surprising offensive input from defensive specialist Jon Smith, the 'Cats turned the corner. The tag-team of Cooper and Offutt combined for 11 points over the next five minutes as the Ohio lead jumped back out to nine. After Smith drove to the baseline and took flight over Paul to slam it in one handed, the momentum was fully shifted back into the 'Cats corner.
They cruised to win the game, earning their third trip to the MAC tournament finals in four seasons, all of them against Akron who advanced earlier Friday night in a down-to-the-wire battle with Kent State. The win set's up the perfect finale to the MAC season tomorrow night, as the co-regular season champs have put on a number of instant classics over the past four seasons, including two epic battles this season that Akron claimed for themselves.
"It's only right," Cooper said after the game about the final showdown with Akron. "We lost to them twice and we felt like we gave the games away ... We love playing Akron."
The MAC couldn't ask for a better matchup and the fans couldn't be more spoiled. Getting to watch these two conference heavyweights go up against each other for a third time this season, in a rematch of a classic MAC Finals from last season, almost seems unbelievable, but it's happening.
The odds are in Ohio's favor too as my colleague at WOUB so helpfully pointed out.
Akron's looking to become the 1st team since 2008 to beat a team twice in the regular season and beat them again in the MAC Championship ...— Matthew Doyle (@MatthewDoyle0) March 16, 2013
Jim Christian was the last coach to do that in the MAC, leading Kent State to three wins including a MAC Championship win over Akron in '08.— Matthew Doyle (@MatthewDoyle0) March 16, 2013
It's hard for any team to beat an opponent three times in one season, but especially when said team is without the main reason they won the first two, and when the team previously on the losing side had a guy who's game is so good opposing coaches are literally counting down the days until his graduation. I think we're in for an epic match up folks. Get you're popcorn ready.