For about four minutes, Javarez Willis was the only Bobcat to score. But in the timespan, Willis scored 17 points- en route to a 31-point performance- and helped lead the Bobcats to a thrilling 83-82 victory over the Akron Zips.
"[Willis] is like lightening, and some nights you ride the lightening" said Ohio head coach Saul Phillips after the game.
When Willis hit a 3 with 9:41 left in the game, the Bobcats were behind 58-63. They had been chasing Akron the entire second and most of the first half. With just under 6 minutes to play, Willis sank a free throw to complete a class three-point play, and the Bobcats led 71-69. It was a lead they would not relinquish, despite an impressive effort by Akron shooting from long range.
"We shot the ball well, when you hit 18 threes, that should probably be enough to win," said Akron head coach Keith Dambrot.
The Bobcats jumped to a quick lead at the start of the game, thanks to Maurice Ndour and some terrific post play from Antonio Campbell, who did a great job keeping tabs on Pat Forsythe all night. The Bobcats kept the Zips out of the post, limiting Akron's second chances. But the Zips began to out-muscle the 'Cats in the paint, and that was where the game turned around.
Ohio lost its early 9-3 lead in a couple minutes, and fought just to remain in striking distance. The teams' shooting percentage was close (49% to 48%, in favor of Akron) and they had similar totals for points in the paint. But Akron outscored Ohio 20-7 on second chance points in the first half, and it was that advantage that gave the Zips a 47-37 lead going into halftime.
Phillips said that he told his team to limit the dribble-drive in the second half, keep them from getting inside. As a result, the Zips scored just 3 points off second chances in the 2nd half.
Campbell broke out offensively to start the 2nd half. He had held Forsythe to just 4 points in the 1st half, but had not scored himself. He put an end to that hitting two 3-pointers and a layup on a nice post move. That cut the lead to 49-51, Akron. But threes from Forsythe, Aaron Jackson and Deji Ibitayo (who exploded with 21 points off the bench) put the Zips back up, 60-50.
Like an irritating fly, the Zips could feel Ohio come close but could not swat them away. Despite scoring 18 threes, they took 34 shots from beyond the arch- and were a stupefyingly bad 0-for-6 from the charity stripe. When Willis got hot, the Zips could no longer hold off the Bobcats.
"They got what they needed from [Willis], things are different when he gets 31. Had he missed the threes, we probably win by 15, but he made those three in a row, and they were bombs," said Dambrot. "They had everything go right."
Nothing illustrated this more than a possession at the 4:30 mark. Willis lost control of the ball near mid-court, forcing him to chase the ball and make a jumping throw over the line to avoid a backcourt violation. The pass found Ndour with 2 seconds on the shot clock, and Ndour hit the 3 as the horn sounded. The whole Convocation Center shook.
Still, the Bobcats had their troubles closing out the Zips. Ohio's inability to make free throws was a life line for Akron. Threes by Jackson and Reggie McAdams cut Ohio's lead to 3 with 44 seconds to play. Stevie Taylor was fouled, but only made one of his shots, and when Jake Kretzer hit another three, Ohio's lead was 1.
On Ohio's second inbound attempt, Stevie Taylor's pass went over Ndour and out of bounce. Akron had the ball in their half with 5.1 seconds to play with.
Ibitayo received the ball in the corner with Ryan Taylor covering him. He spun to the basket, and floated a lineup that was not strong enough. Stevie Taylor snatched the rebound and threw it in the air, and time expired. Ohio had beaten the top team in the MAC East.
"Our leagues is the most balanced its ever been," said Dambrot after the game. "There's a lot of good teams. So a 56 year old like me now feels like a 70 year because every night feels like the same stuff. Lot of respect for Ohio, always do. It was a heck of a game, a wild one."