The Ohio University women’s basketball team began the 2019-20 season with a huge target on its back, and a clearly defined goal — unfinished business.
The Bobcats struggled at times with the former, and had the latter taken away when public health concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the Mid-American Conference Tournament — and later the NCAA version and all postseason events — last week.
After consecutive years finishing as one of the ‘First Four’ left out of the NCAA Tournament, Ohio wanted to avoid being in that spot again in ’19-20. The non-conference schedule was beefed up to an unheard of degree for OU, but it was a slate of late-season conference losses that left the ‘Cats looking for a MAC Tournament championship as its only way into the NCAA field for the first time since 2015.
And Ohio (19-11) had a good shot to win it. The Bobcats were in the semifinal round when the tournament was cancelled, and the top two seeds — No. 1 Central Michigan and No. 2 Ball State — were both bounced out in the quarterfinals.
After a four-game skid late in the season, the Bobcats had entered the most important part of its year with a renewed sense of ease.
“The biggest thing was the idea that the tournament is finally here,” Ohio head coach Bob Boldon said after OU’s home win over Miami wrapped up the regular season and gave the ‘Cats the fourth-seed and a first-round bye for the MAC Tournament.
“There was kind of a newfound joy and excitement about playing and a new perspective about trying to get better in practice.”
Ohio opened tournament play in Cleveland with an 84-75 win over Western Michigan, played in front of two dozen fans and the OU men’s team as virus concerns had shuttered the doors to the general public at Rocket Mortgage Field House.
OU’s last bucket came from standout sophomore guard Erica Johnson, and gave her exactly 1,000 points over her career. The Bobcats now had four 1,000-point scorers on the roster — Johnson, senior Amani Burke and juniors Cece Hooks and Gabby Burris.
But they never got to take the floor at the same time. By the following afternoon, the tournament was cancelled, the season was over, and Ohio had only ‘what-ifs’ to think about.
Boldon, the day before the tournament was called, didn’t tip his hand as to whether the event should continue. He merely expressed his appreciation for another moment on the floor with a team that tried to push the program forward with extraordinary effort all season.
“I’m just grateful that we have a chance, however this shakes out, whether we lose Friday or win the whole thing, that we had a chance to play,” Boldon said. “I’m very grateful for that.
“You heard the joy in their voices about this game, right, and that’s going to happen four times today for four different teams and I’m grateful for that.”
Ohio’s season had its pitfalls along the way. OU opened the year with a 12-point loss at Syracuse, the first of six games against power conference teams in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
A tough back-to-back slate at a tournament around Thanksgiving — OU had less than 24 hours between games — played a part in a five-point loss to Butler in late November.
Johnson missed two games in December, and Ohio lost both — games that slipped away late in losses at Big XII schools TCU and Texas.
Conference play presented an assortment of tough losses. Ohio was 11-7 in conference play, but six of the losses came four points or fewer — four by 1 or two points. One of those was a 2-point overtime loss at CMU when Burke missed because of a death in her family.
There were positive moments as well. The Bobcats had a five-game winning streak in non-conference play, and a pair of four-game runs in the MAC. Johnson and Hooks cemented their status as two of the best players in the league.
The Bobcats also tied for the MAC East title — Kent State won via divisional record.
OU nearly won 20 games with a schedule as difficult as anything Boldon has put forth in his time at Ohio. The Bobcats had 11 games against teams in the top 101 in RPI, and finished 4-7. OU had five games against teams that finished in the top 59.
And at the end, OU was poised to be a real threat to win the tournament. Their ‘Unfinished Business’ could be attended to right up until the point it was taken away due to unforeseen circumstances.
Burke, a senior, won’t get a chance to try again. Her MAC Tournament, appreciated as it was, was her final attempt to get into the NCAA Tournament. She was ready to lay it all on the line.
“We had a lot of adversity on this team…but I think we came together at the perfect time, and we still have games to win and games to play,” Burke said after the WMU tournament win.
“Go out and say I left it all on the floor. It really means a lot to me.”
Ohio’s best win — both RPI wise and from an emotional standpoint — came in mid-November with a 74-68 victory at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes had a good season, and would have been in the NCAA Tournament with a 21-12 record and an RPI of 17.
Ohio gave a good glimpse of its potential in this one. The Bobcats grabbed the lead and played with it for the entire second half as OU’s guard play dominated the bigger, taller Buckeyes.
Burke, playing in her hometown, was sensation with 23 points. Johnson, giving a preview of huge games to come, finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
At the time, OU looked like it could break through and craft an at-large worthy resume this season.
And the Bobcats reacted that way after the game, going to find friends and family in the stands and soaking up every last second of their first win over the biggest program in the state.
OU lost 11 games, which is too many to be considered for an at-large spot, but the Bobcats were oh-so-close to a monster year.
Ohio had just three losses all season by more than seven points — by 12 at Syracuse in the season opener, by 13 at Texas in mid-December and the third which was the worst of the season.
On Feb. 26, Ohio lost 82-68 at Bowling Green. The 14-margin of defeat was the largest of the season and came against the worst team in the MAC. Bowling Green finished the year 8-21, with an RPI of 253.
The loss was the second in a row, and came in the middle of a four-game slide — all against MAC East foes — at the end of the season.
It was clearly OU’s low point.
Player(s) of the Year
Depending on when you saw Ohio, you probably thought either junior guard Cece Hooks or Johnson was a strong contender for MAC Player of the Year.
You were right in either case.
Hooks turned in another great year at OU and finished averaging 18.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 3.7 steals per game. Hooks posted 106 steals on the season, second behind her own mark of 110 last year in OU history, and earned MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors for a second straight year, while also earning All-MAC First Team honors. She tied the Ohio single-game record with 41 points at Akron.
Johnson, in my opinion, was just a little better. She, too, was an All-MAC First Team selection and blew up this season after earning MAC Freshman of the Year honors in 2018-19.
Johnson led Ohio in scoring (18.9 points), rebounding (7.5) and assists (4.3). She was second behind Hooks with 2.1 steals per game, and Johnson became a terrific shooter — 40.8 percent from 3-point range.
Where Hooks dominated games with her ability to drive, or defend, Johnson was able to both get to the rim, shoot the long ball, and excelled in setting up teammates for easier looks. She both scored 36 points (in a loss at Kent), and posted the program’s first triple-double.
It’s a tough call, and there’s no wrong answer, but for this year and this team I thought Johnson was Ohio’s MVP.