It was a tale of two halves Friday night in Cleveland. It was also a tale of two heroes.
D.J. Cooper (21 points, 10 assists) and Walter Offutt (14 points, 11 rebounds) both recorded double-doubles as Ohio (24-8) survived a second-half scare from Western Michigan (20-12) to advance to the MAC Championship game.
Ohio began to get going at about the 13:00 minute mark of the first half, a D.J. Cooper
three from in front of the Western Michigan bench began an 11-0 Ohio run. The Bobcats would hold Western scoreless for 5:40.
The Bobcats did almost everything right in the first half: They shared the ball, shot well, and played focused defense. The Bobcats would finish the second half on a 33-16 extended run to take a 17-point lead into halftime.
Ohio made baskets at a blistering pace in the first half. They made seven of nine three pointers, their best half of shooting in the season. All of Cooper’s nine first half points came from behind the arc. He didn’t miss a shot.
“We turned them over a little bit in the first half,” said head coach Jim Christian.
Lost in Cooper’s dominance was Reggie Keely’s workman-like effort. He got to the free throw line early and often and finished the half with eight points.
“I thought Reggie played the best interior defense he’s played all year,” said Christian. “He’s our only interior presence.”
Ohio came out of the locker room cold. Western Michigan cut the lead to 9 with 17 minutes remaining in the game. Darius Paul, who was suffering lingering effects from food poisoning, scored 7 Bronco points in the first five minutes of the half. He would finish with 16 points and four rebounds.
“We started making shots in the second half,” said Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins. “It had a lot to do with playing the defense we wanted to play.”
The Bobcats found themselves in foul trouble early in the second half. They recorded their 6th team foul at 13:46 remaining.
Western Michigan continued to work Ohio’s lead down with stingy defense. The Broncos forced turnovers and bad Bobcat shots. The Bobcats managed only seven points in the first 10 minutes of the half.
Eventually, Western Michigan found themselves right back in the game. Shayne Whittington’s layup at the 10-minute mark cut the Bobcat lead to two.
Cooper would respond with a 3 the next time down the court. Western Michigan wouldn’t get any closer.
“I knew if it didn’t go in it wasn’t the best shot,” said Cooper of his 25-footer early in the shot clock. “It felt good to get the lead back to 5.”
“He makes huge plays,” said Christian. “He’s got a tremendous amount of confidence.”
Cooper wasn’t the only senior leader to provide a second-half spark.
At the eight-minute mark, Walter Offutt launched contested three late in the shot clock to extend the Bobcat lead to eight. The next possession he entered a crowded lane and tipped home a missed Reggie Keely jumper.
Only two minutes later, Offutt would throw a perfect cross-court pass to a streaking Cooper, evoking images of Wade-to-LeBron. Suddenly, Ohio led by nine. They wouldn’t look back.
The Bobcats will move on to face Akron in the Championship game for the third time in four seasons.
“It’s only right,” said Cooper. “We love playing Akron.”
Earlier in the evening, Akron defeated Kent State 62-59 in a thrilling matchup of cross-town rivals. Akron won both matchups against Ohio earlier this season.
“We feel like we gave the game away the first two times,” said Cooper. “If you’re a competitor you love to play in those games.”
Akron will be without suspended point guard Alex Abreu in tomorrow’s championship game. Christian knows that won’t make his job any easier.
“They play 11 guys,” he said. “They’re a good basketball team with him, they’re a good basketball team without him.”
“I think they have the best mid-major front court in college basketball. There are not many teams that put 7-footers out there that control the paint, and they surround those guys with a lot of shooters.”
In order to punch their ticket, Ohio will need to find a way to find rebounds. Offutt, who grabbed 11 rebounds, knows it is always a challenge with Ohio.
“It’s no secret, we’re a small team,” he said. “Seniors step up and make big-time plays.”
Tipoff for the championship game is tomorrow at 6:30 p.m.