Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
Stevie Taylor may be the smallest player on the court and Jon Smith may be the skinniest, but the two came off the bench to fuel Ohio’s 58-54 comeback victory over rival Miami (OH) to earn a share of the Mid-American Conference regular season title.
“It feels good because it’s a goal accomplished, but we got more goals,” said Smith on winning the program’s first regular season title since 1994 and its 10th overall. Ohio also tied a program-record with 14 MAC wins.
Ohio honored seniors Nick Goff, David McKinley, Walter Offutt, Ivo Baltic, Reggie Keely and D.J. Cooper in a short ceremony prior to the game. McKinley, a fan-favorite, made his first career start. With the win, the class has now won a program-record 93 games and has the most post-season victories of any class with 12. Stevie Taylor was more than happy to help out the seniors in their last game at the Convocation Center.
“I just wanted to send the seniors out on a good note and I wanted the championship so bad,” said Taylor, who finished with eight points and three steals. “I was going to have to do whatever I needed to do.”
Cooper led Ohio (23-8, 14-2) with 17 points, but it was Smith and Taylor who sparked a 15-0 run down the stretch to help turn a 12-point deficit into a three-point lead.
“We showed courage in the last 12 minutes of the game,” said Ohio head coach Jim Christian. “I was really proud of the way we fought to get a share of that championship on a night that we didn’t play well and had to find a way.”
Smith finished with nine points and a season-high 10 rebounds, helping Ohio’s bench outscore Miami’s 23-12.
“It meant everything,” said Cooper of the performance from Smith and Taylor. “Jon was doing the little stuff…Stevie came in and gave us the spark. He’s putting in extra work and it’s paying off. When you work hard, good things happen.”
Cooper drained his signature NBA-range three from the right wing to put Ohio on the board, but after jumping out to a 15-9 lead, the Bobcats struggled offensively.
Ohio committed four straight turnovers and had seven in the opening 12 minutes, allowing the RedHawks, who missed 14 of their first 17 shots to hang around. Late in the half, the Bobcats missed four straight point-blank shots before T.J. Hall committed a foul out of frustration. A possession later, Smith was called for offensive basket interference to negate a score.
“(On) senior night, you just really never know how seniors are going to react,” said Christian. “I thought it kind of drained us, we came out a little bit flat and obviously in the first half didn’t play very well on the offensive end of the floor. We couldn’t make any shots, didn’t have any flow or rhythm.”
Miami (8-21, 3-13) finally found their rhythm and closed the half with a 9-1 run to take a 28-22 advantage into halftime. The RedHawks dominated the Bobcats in the paint, outscoring the Green and White 18-2 in the first 20 minutes.
Cooper carried the offense in the first half, scoring 10 of the Bobcats 22 points on 3-10 shooting. The rest of the team shot 3-22 from the floor.
Miami began to pull-away in the second half. After a Keely dunk, Quinten Rollins quieted the crowd with a layup on the other end and Reggie Johnson followed with a pull-up jumper in transition to give Miami its largest lead of the game, 41-29 with 14:03 to play.
A free throw from Geovonie McKnight gave Miami a 44-32 lead with 11:58 to play, before Ohio came roaring back.
Taylor kick-started the run with a long three-pointer from the left wing before Smith scored five straight points including four on one possession. Smith scored a basket and was fouled but missed the free throw. Instead of sulking, he raced down the lane and tipped in the miss bringing the crowd to its feet.
“I was really disappointed with what I did in the first half,” said Smith, who missed four put-backs in the opening 20 minutes. “Coach in the locker room was like ‘just play’. I listened to him. I didn’t really think, I just went out and just tried to have a high motor.”
Offutt scored on a baseline drive and Smith connected on a free throw to cut the deficit to two. That’s when Taylor’s defense took over.
The pesky guard stole McKnight’s pass and laid in the game-tying layup and then stripped McKnight once again, and found Cooper open in front of the Ohio bench for a transition three to hand Ohio a 47-44 lead, sending the crowd of 8,428 into an absolute frenzy with 7:04 to play.
“I always analyze our team and analyze what can I do to help and coach called my number and I had to produce,” said Taylor, who was wearing a piece of the net the Bobcats cut down after the game.
“They got on a run,” said Miami head coach John Cooper. “They made some shots and they were able to force some turnovers. They were live-ball turnovers and those lead to typically transition buckets.”
Will Sullivan stopped the bleeding momentarily with a layup as the shot clock expired but Baltic canned just his ninth three-pointer of the season to extend the lead to four.
The teams traded points until Hall gathered Nick Kellogg’s missed three-point attempt and laid it in for a 56-52 lead with 1:18 to play.
Will Felder, who led the RedHawks with 20 points, hit a pair of free throws with 57 seconds left to trim Ohio’s lead back to two.
With the shot clock winding down, Cooper kicked to Kellogg in the corner. The junior guard was at that point 0-4 from the field, all on shots from beyond-the-arc. This time he decided to try his luck inside the three-point line. His shot fake sent Sullivan flying by as he took one dribble and calmly sank an 18-footer for his only points of the game to give Ohio a four-point lead with 24 seconds remaining.
As they did all game long, Ohio sealed the victory with defense.
Smith blocked Rollins’ layup attempt out-of-bounds and then Kellogg tied up McKnight for a jump ball, allowing Ohio to regain possession and run the clock out.
Ohio now heads to Cleveland for the MAC Tournament, which begins Monday, with first round games being played at the higher seeds’ campus. As the No. 2 seed, the Bobcats earned a bye into the semifinal and won’t play until Friday (March 15).
“We celebrate tonight and then tomorrow it’s on to the tourney,” said Smith.
“We just got to have a strong week of preparation and just bring it,” added Cooper.
Friday’s game is scheduled to tip-off at 9 p.m. from Quicken Loans Arena.
Notes: The RedHawks dressed just nine players and were without leading scorer Allen Roberts (12.9 points) for the second straight game. Roberts will miss the rest of the season with a slight meniscus tear.