Just over one year ago, Ohio lost consecutive road games in Toledo and Eastern Michigan, falling to 7-4 in the MAC. Bobcat Nation was restless and frustrated—they would not remain that way for long.
The Bobcats went on to win 10 of their next 11 games en route to becoming the darlings of March Madness and winning a program record 29 games.
While the 2012-2013 team struggled mightily on the road early in the season, they have been phenomenal on the road in conference play, save for the tough loss to Akron on Feb. 2.
After plane troubles caused the team to take the seven-hour bus ride up to Mt. Pleasant, it was one of those games that the Bobcats might have lost a few years ago. But this time, the veteran Bobcats, led by their senior class, rose to the occasion.
Ohio (18-6, 9-1) overcame a sloppy start to run away from Central Michigan (9-15, 2-9) in the second half, winning 82-63.
With the victory, the senior class of D.J. Cooper, Reggie Keely, Ivo Baltic, Walter Offutt and David McKinley earned win number 88 at Ohio, becoming the winningest class in program history, surpassing the previous mark of 87 set by the 1982-1986 class.
“If you want to build programs that sustain legacies, this is where it starts, with these guys,” said a proud Jim Christian when asked about his seniors.
The win helped the Bobcats keep pace with MAC-leading Akron (20-4, 11-0), who extended the nation's longest winning streak to 16 games after defeating Eastern Michigan 70-62.
Offutt led Ohio with 17 points and eight rebounds, while Keely added 14 points and six boards. Keely is now just two points away from eclipsing 1,000 for his career.
The Bobcats used a 12-4 run early in the second half to take control and held a double-digit lead for the rest of the game. Ohio led by as many as 21 to earn their tenth win in their last 11 games.
Ohio, which leads the MAC in shooting percentage at over 48 percent from the field, shot 51 percent (30-58) and made 10-21 from beyond the arc. The Bobcats held CMU to 40 percent shooting (22-55), including 4-21 from long range and forced 19 turnovers.
But it wasn’t all rosy for the 'Cats. Ohio came out flat with six turnovers in the opening four minutes and looked to be out of sync offensively.
“We didn’t play focused in the first half. We were lethargic,” said Christian.
The Chippewas couldn’t capitalize on the Bobcats’ slow start, turning it over on three consecutive possessions leading to a layup by Offutt and dunk for Keely to put Ohio on the board.
Offutt knocked down three triples from the corners as the Bobcats shredded CMU’s 3-2 zone to take the lead. However, Ohio was never able to sustain any rhythm offensively in the first half, often playing too fast for its own good. But the Bobcats used the frenetic pace to their advantage, scoring 14 points on the fast break, thanks in large part to a stingy defense that forced nine first half turnovers.
2 away from 1000 points in my career. Can't wait to get it in front of the best fans in the Mac #itsonlyright— Reggie keely jr (@BiG_ReG30) February 14, 2013
But while they forced turnovers, Ohio was consistently one step behind Kyle Randall, who came into the game second in the MAC in scoring with 17.2 points. The transfer from UNC-Greensboro scored 15 of the Chippewas 31 first-half points and finished with a game-high 28 points.
Keely poured in 12 of his 14 points in the opening 20 minutes, including a buzzer-beating jumper to give Ohio a 35-31 halftime lead.
The Bobcats continued their hot shooting in the second half as three-pointers from Stevie Taylor, Cooper and Ricardo Johnson allowed the Bobcats to withstand three straight makes from CMU, before Ohio was finally able to pull away.
A three-point play from Johnson gave Ohio a 49-41 lead to start the Bobcats 12-4 run, and after Jon Smith slammed home Baltic's miss, Johnson swished his second trey from the right corner to put Ohio up by nine. Baltic knocked down a jumper from the top of the key and another Smith putback gave Ohio a 13-point lead with 12:15 remaining.
“I had to pick up the energy. That’s what I do best is bring energy and be able to produce when my number is called,” said Johnson, who came off the bench to fill the box score with 11 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Ohio’s bench was terrific, outscoring the CMU bench 31-15.
“I thought we got really good contributions from everybody that came in. It’s one of those nights where energy’s not there and you need a bunch of different guys to supply it,” added Christian.
Later on, Cooper found the bottom of the net from NBA range to extend the lead to 68-49—Ohio cruised to yet another road victory. Cooper scored eight points and added three assists, upping his career total to 877 helpings, tied for 18th all-time.
The seniors will try to add another win this Saturday when they return to the Convocation Center for an 11 a.m. matchup with Kent State (14-11, 5-6) on ESPNU. The Bobcats won the first meeting in classic fashion, 69-68, and are looking to sweep the Golden Flashes for the first time since the 2000-2001 season.
Marlowe Alter is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.