Western Michigan rolled into Athens, Ohio Wednesday night in firm control of its own destiny, having already beaten Toledo, Akron and Ohio once each on the season and in sole possession of first place in the Mid-American Conference. After downing the Bobcats 73-63 in a game that was more lopsided than the final score lets on, the Broncos (17-8, 10-3 MAC) got one step closer to capturing their first outright regular season conference title since 2004. Meanwhile Ohio (18-8, 8-5) has now lost three in its last five and is spiraling out of a first-round bye in the upcoming MAC Tournament.
Rolling into the home of a team dubbed the "Cardiac 'Cats" for their knack of erasing lofty deficits, Western Michigan's early 13-5 lead in the first six minutes was promising for WMU, but was far too earlier to write the 'Cats off. In fact, at that point Ohio had only missed one shot, but had fallen victim to the turnover bug.
Ohio started to respond, as it was able to hang on to the rock, but the faster, stronger, deeper Broncos were hotter (shooting an even 50 percent from the field vs. Ohio's still-impressive 47.2 percent), and had the benefit of an early lead to build off of. With 5:28 left in the half WMU lead 31-18 on the backs of strong showings from David Brown and Connar Tava who finished with 23 and 18 points apiece.
Then the slumbering Bobcats woke up. The two teams went scoreless for the next two minutes before Maurice Ndour began and finished a quick 6-0 run to cut the Bronco's lead to just five. The teams failed to score again in the final 1:39 of the half and entered halftime up 31-25.
Jon Smith, who came off the bench Wednesday as punishment for an undisclosed violation of team rules, helped carry that momentum into the second half as Ohio brought the game to within three points less than four minutes into the half. Then the sharp-shooting Broncos kicked themselves back into gear, going on a 14-3 run over the next six minutes of action. A pair of 3-pointers from Brown (one of the four he made out of his 10 attempts on the night) and Austin Ritchie highlighted the run that the 'Cats were never able to recover from.
Ohio's Nick Kellogg tried his best to erase the deficit, scoring 17 points in the final six minutes of the game, but with the 'Cats struggling to break through WMU's tough front-court presence and break up the Broncos' pacing, it wasn't enough. Kellogg finished with 20 points on the night to lead all Ohio scorers, shooting 7-of-13 and 4-of-9 from 3-point range.
Tava scored 11 points in the final 10:22 and Brown chipped in eight. The duo finished shooting 58 percent and 43 percent respectively. Tava added six boards and five dimes and four steals to his stat sheet as well, while Brown had four rebounds.
Part of WMU's ability to leap out to an early lead, and hold on to it, was its victory on the glass. The Broncos out-rebounded Ohio 34-28 as Shayne Whittington picked up a double-double (11 points and 11 rebounds) while neutralizing Ohio forwards Antonio Campbell, Jon Smith and Treg Setty. The trio of Bobcats pulled down a combined 10 rebounds while scoring just 12 points in a combined 46 minutes of action.
Also noticeably quiet was Maurice Ndour. The 'Cats do-it-all wing player managed to put up 14, five and a pair of blocks, but had five costly turnovers, several in the early minutes of the game, and was unable to assert his presence in a meaningful way.
With the win the Broncos improve their winning streak to six games, capturing their first victory in Athens since Jan. 22, 2000. With just five games left, three of those against the bottom three teams in the West division, WMU is in the drivers seat for a Conference regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the MAC Tournament. the Brown and Gold return home for a Sunday afternoon match up with rival EMU, a team that held the Broncos to just 37 points on Jan. 14..
Ohio now sits at third in the East and with a win by EMU tomorrow could be sitting at fifth in the conference. With upcoming contests against MAC East leaders Akron (Saturday at 6 p.m.) and Buffalo (Wednesday 7 p.m.) the 'Cats need to win both for any shot of claiming the East title.