For a school-record fourth consecutive time, the Ohio men’s basketball team qualified for a postseason tournament, unfortunately 2013’s postseason run fell short.
The D.J. Cooper era officially ended on Tuesday night with a 61-57 loss to the Denver Pioneers in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament at Magness Arena.
Ohio (24-10) had a chance to tie the game with 19 seconds remaining. Senior forward Reggie Keely got the ball in his preferred post position, but his shot hit off the backboard. After collecting the rebound, Denver (22-9) had a chance to run down the clock and Royce O’Neale’s slam dunk sealed the Bobcats’ fate.
Following the win, the No. 3 seed Pioneers will now head to College Park, Md., to take on the No. 2 seed Terrapins in the second round of the NIT.
In the final game of their respective college careers, Cooper scored 16 points, dished out 4 assists and grabbed 2 rebounds in his final game wearing the green and white of Ohio, Keely added 12 points, and Ivo Baltic compiled 15 rebounds.
Brett Olson led the Pioneers with 15 points and three steals. Chris Udofia scored 14 points and had three rebounds and two assists. Cam Griffin chipped in with 14 points and 10 rebounds off the bench for the Western Athletic Coast outfit.
The ‘Cats were able to put their disappointing conference title game performance behind them and get off to a strong start. Two early baskets from Keely and 2-point baskets from T.J. Hall and Nick Kellogg handed Ohio an early 8-5 advantage with 3:18 gone in the first half.
Two layups from Udofia and Jalen Love and a three-pointer from Olson gave Denver a 12-8 lead with 13:43 remaining in the first half.
With Ohio down 20-15 with 7:19 left until halftime, the Bobcats needed a spark to ignite their charge, enter Travis Wilkins.
The Springfield, Mo., native hit back-to-back three-point field goals in the left corner to cut Denver’s lead to 22-21 with 5:55 remaining in the first half. Wilkins finished with eight points.
At this point in the game, Cooper had scored zero points. He quickly changed that right before halftime.
Cooper scored a three-point play, hit two free throws and made a layup with four seconds left to give Ohio a 32-30 lead at the break.
The Bobcats shot 44 percent from the field in the first half (12-of-27) and out-rebounded Denver 19-11. The Pioneers shot 50 percent from the field in the first half and had seven assists, compared to Ohio’s five.
In the second half, Ohio was able to extend its lead to seven early on. A Cooper three-pointer and back-to-back buckets from Stevie Taylor guided Ohio to a 46-39 lead with 7:14 gone in the second stanza.
Then, just like Akron did last Saturday night, Denver made a run to get back into the game. Layups from O’Neale, Griffin and Udofia tied the game at 48 with 10:21 remaining.
After Olson made a pair of free throws to hand Denver a 57-52 lead with3:55 left, Cooper knew he needed to make a play. After the ball was almost stolen at mid-court, Cooper nailed one of his trademark three-point bombs to cut the Denver lead to 57-55.
Keely made a layup to bring Ohio to within one at 58-57 with 1:02 left, but poor offensive execution at the end for the ‘Cats let Denver off the hook.
Even though they got the win, the Pioneers shot a dismal 51 percent from the free throw line (15-of-29). They were out-rebounded 32-21, but they did have 13 assists and 10 blocks. Ohio shot 41 percent from the field (22-of-53).
Ohio coach Jim Christian and his returning players will now have to contemplate life without Cooper, Keely, Baltic, Walter Offutt and David McKinley.