If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Ohio basketball over the past few years, it’s that the Bobcats are extremely difficult to beat at the Convocation Center.
Ohio picked up another win at home Wednesday night, trouncing Northern Illinois 81-63 to improve to 3-0 in MAC play for the first time since the 2005-2006 season. Ohio has now won 33 of its past 35 games at home, including a 10-1 mark this season.
Walter Offutt scored a game-high 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-5 from downtown. Reggie Keely chipped in 12 points and D.J. Cooper, who was named MAC East Division Player of the Week for the third time in four weeks on Monday, filled the box score with nine points, eight assists and four steals.
After a sloppy opening eight-plus minutes in which Ohio committed seven turnovers and NIU five, the Huskies held a surprising 12-9 lead.
But Ohio found its mojo and quickly turned the three-point deficit into a laugher.
With help from their deep bench, the Bobcats went on a 20-0 run in just 5:50 to take a 29-12. Sparked by two free throws from Ricardo Johnson, who also provided stingy on-the-ball defense and great energy, Ohio tore apart the NIU defense while holding them without a field goal for more eight minutes.
Stevie Taylor swished two threes during the run, and Ohio made six straight trifectas as the run extended to 28-2.
The exclamation point was a beautiful alley-oop pass from Cooper to Ivo Baltic, which brought the raucous crowd of 7,648 to its feet.
"I thought the players got energy from the crowd," said Ohio coach Jim Christian. "We had an unbelievable student section. They were loud and into the game. In the first half, they provided an unbelievable spark for our team and we had some great runs.
After the game, Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery said, “(Ohio is) the best spurt team in the conference…I’m glad we only face them once in the regular season.”
The Bobcats outscored NIU 33-6 over the final 11:25 of the half to take a commanding 45-18 lead into halftime. Ohio shot 7-of-11 (63.6 percent) from long range and 17-of-25 (68 percent) from the field in the first half.
Led by Taylor's eight points, Ohio’s bench outscored NIU 21-18 in the half.
“The bench with our energy got us going a little bit,” Johnson said. “We play on the same team a lot in practice, so when you come off the bench that chemistry kind of helps.”
Ohio continued the onslaught in the second half, extending the lead above 30 numerous times before Christian went to his deep reserves to close out the win.
The Bobcats racked up 25 assists, improving their nation-leading average to 19.6 per game. A perfect example of Ohio’s unselfish play occurred midway through the second half with Ohio leading by 30. Reggie Keely corralled an ill-advised pass and found Johnson, who raced up the court and kicked to Taylor on the wing who made the ‘extra pass’ to Offutt for a wide-open corner three-pointer.
Cooper, who came into the game second in the nation with 8.3 assists per game, added eight more to move into 23rd place on the all-time NCAA Division I assists list.
Ohio’s smothering defense forced 20 turnovers, leading to 28 points. The Huskies shot 35.1 percent (20-of-57) from the floor and had just five assists NIU’s leading scorer Abdel Nader (13.6 pts) finished 7-of-21 from the field for 16 points with four turnovers. His air ball three-pointer late in the second half perfectly summed up the Huskies' night.
Ohio looks to move to 4-0 in conference play when it welcomes Toledo (6-8, 2-1) to town Saturday for a 6 pm tip-off. The Rockets are coming off a 79-56 shellacking at the hands of Western Michigan, but were the consensus favorite to win the MAC West. They are led by junior guard Rian Pearson’s 19.3 points per game.
Marlowe Alter is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.