Ohio did everything in its power to give away a substantial second half lead. Poor ball handling, plenty of fouls, and passive play in the paint allowed Northern Illinois to stage a comeback and erase an 18-point lead, but Ohio stepped on the gas when it needed to do so. Ohio’s (14-8, 5-5) final push quelled Northern Illinois’s (16-7, 5-5) comeback and allowed the Bobcats to escape with an 80-69 win.
A spinning Levi Bradley layup gave Northern Illinois a 60-59 lead with over nine minutes remaining, prompting several minutes of back and forth action. The Huskies completely dominated in the paint, out-rebounding Ohio 37-24 and creating easy looks for themselves. Aric Armstead, Marin Maric, and Levi Bradley all excelled near the hoop, picking up 41 points and 24 rebounds, cumulatively.
Northern Illinois put on quite the display in erasing the lead, ripping off a 20-4 run at one point, but it ran out of gas trying to sustain it.
Northern Illinois allowed Ohio to hang around and it came back to burn the Huskies. Back to back 3-pointers from Jaaron Simmons and Jordan Dartis with three minutes remaining put Ohio back into the lead for good and sent the Convocation Center into a frenzy.
That sequence, combined with a host of other crucial hustle and toughness plays, swung the momentum and got the Bobcats in a position to win.
Simmons had seen this story before: struggling to maintain a second half double-digit lead. He was not ready for déjà vu to set in. "Coach and my teammates told me to keep doing what I was doing and to step up," Simmons said. "We have to keep our foot on the petal. We need to always play to win and not play to not lose."
"I’m going to let everyone in on a secret: (Jaaron) Simmons is pretty good," Ohio head coach Saul Phillips joked. "He had that look in his eye that we weren’t going to lose."
Phillips noted Ohio’s help-side defense struggled in the second half, allowing Northern Illinois to establish itself near the bucket. However, he admitted Ohio is a team of runs, for better or for worse, and applauded the team getting back in a groove and for fighting off the Huskies.
"That’s the best punch we’ve ever taken that we got up from," Phillips said. "I don’t think I’ve seen a time go from clicking offensively to the spicket running out. It was odd."
The Bobcats would have struggled to ride out the storm without him. The usually pass-first guard took on an additional role of scorer, scoring 14 points in the second half, finishing with 24 points and 12 assists, and reviving a lethargic Ohio offense. Simmons either assisted or scored on five of Ohio’s final six successful offensive possessions.
Dartis looked as if he was on his way to a career day after scoring 14 in the first half, even after taking a nasty elbow to the nose early, but that bucket, albeit an important one, was his only made field goal in the second half. Dartis wasn’t alone: the ‘Cats shot 43 percent from the field in the second half after a scorching hot 60.6 percent performance in the opening half. Overall, Ohio finished 30-of-56 from the field while Northern Illinois finished 25-of-55.
The win keeps Ohio in the middle of the MAC East pack while Northern Illinois missed out on a chance to gain some ground on Central Michigan.