Ohio fans have coined the term "Cardiac 'Cats" to describe their beloved men's basketball team this season, and after yet another late rally in the final minutes of Saturday's game vs. Buffalo (14-8, 8-4 MAC), it's easy to see why. Trailing by 10 in the second half, Ohio (18-7, 8-4 MAC) came back to win 73-70, notching its seventh second half comeback in the past 15 games.
It wasn't easy for Ohio, as finding yourself in a hole like that would imply. The 'Cats held a 2-point lead at halftime, just slightly outperforming their peers in the tug-of-war battle that was the first half. That lead was quickly erased in the second half of a game that saw 12 lead changes in all. Oh, and the Bobcats had to do the whole thing without their starting point guard, Stevie Taylor, who sat out Saturday recovering from a deep calf bruise suffered in the final minutes of Wednesday's loss to Toledo.
With no Tayler, Javarez Willis was forced into the starting roll, a spot the man they call "Bean" hasn't held since leaving Texas Tech two years ago. But it wasn't just that Ohio had to rely on a new starter, without Taylor to turn to, Willis is the only other point guard on roster besides freshman walk-on Drew Crabtree.
But still, despite being down a main piece, Ohio managed to keep pace with the Bulls in the first half. The 'Cats leapt out to an early 10-6 lead thanks to the hot hands of Nick Kellogg and Maurice Ndour, who each finished with a team-high 17 points on the day.
But unshaken, Buffalo quickly erased that lead thanks to strong play from star forward Javon McCrea and Shannon Evans down the stretch of the first half. At intermission neither team had shown an advantage, though Ndour had sparked, scoring nine points in the final 2:47 of the half to give the 'Cats a 37-35 lead.
But, with no option to turn to outside of Willis, the 'Cats found themselves looking sluggish in the second half. Having turned the ball over just six times in the first half, Ohio found itself playing sloppy in the second. While McCrea and Evans, who had 13 points and six boards off the bench, were each dominating for the Bulls offensively, the duo also managed to pray on Ohio, forcing four turnovers by themselves in the first 10 minutes of the half. All told the 'Cats coughed up the rock 13 times on the day, with seven of those coming in that sloppy start to the second half.
But then something clicked. McCrea, who finished with 18 points, eight boards and five steals, found himself getting into foul trouble. He was whistled for a foul, his second at that point, on Ndour at the 10:03 mark, with his Bulls up nine. Over the next several minutes he picked up his third and fourth as Ndour took over and rallied Ohio from the grave once again.
The Senegalese big man finished the day with five blocks to add on to his 17 points and three rebounds. Four of those blocks came in the final 11 minutes of the game. Factored in with some clutch shooting from Willis the 'Cats were able to go on a 12-0 run and take 65-63 lead at the 4:33 mark. With McCrea in foul trouble, Ohio banged it in down low in the final minutes, including a pair of crucial layups and three boards by freshman big Antonio Campbell in the final 1:22 of the game, and held of the Bulls for the win.
Willis finished with nine points, five assists, and four rebounds in his Iron Man type performance. He went 38 minutes, including the final 28 of the game, filling in at the point.
The rally from behind win without a key contributor may be just what the doctor ordered for a team trying to prove it is still in the hunt for a MAC regular season title.
The victory moves the 'Cats into a tie with Bulls in the hyper competitive East, and shoots Buffalo out of the projected 2-seed in the upcoming MAC tournament. The squads face each other again on Feb. 26, this time in Athens.
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