By Mike Ashcraft
Box Score (PDF)
ATHENS, Ohio -- On Jan. 21, 2017, Mike Laster (Detroit, Mich.) scored 14 points off of the bench to help the Ohio men's basketball team earn a 78-69 victory over Mid-American Conference West Division foe Northern Illinois in DeKalb, Ill.
Less than a year later, the growth and impact of the senior guard's game was on full display, once again at the expense of the Huskies.
Laster scored a career-high 31 points to lead all scorers on 10-of-12 shooting with a career-high five three-pointers and went 6-of-7 from the free throw line as Ohio (8-6, 1-1 MAC) earned its first MAC victory of the 2018 season with a 78-68 triumph over Northern Illinois (8-7, 1-1 MAC) on Saturday (Jan. 6) at the Convocation Center.
"For me, personally, I always think that I'm on fire, but I just let a lot of those shots come to me," said Laster. "I just take them when they're there. I try to work a lot on my mechanics on my three-ball and try to take them when they're there."
The Bobcats earned their fourth-straight win over the Huskies. More importantly, Ohio bounced back from a lackluster 75-50 loss to MAC West Division foe Central Michigan in the 2018 league opener on Tuesday (Jan. 2) in Mount Pleasant Mich. The bounce-back victory over Northern Illinois marks the fifth time in six tries Ohio has responded from a loss of 20 points or more with a win in the following game under fourth-year head coach Saul Phillips.
"Offensively, we just looked a lot more like we looked for the majority of the first semester," said Phillips of the win. "If we can cut down on turnovers, we can be a pretty darn good offensive team. The real story of the game was the first half, holding them to 8-of-29 from the field. I thought our guys absorbed the game plan really well, and for one half, defensively executed about as well as we could have. They got a little bit loose on us in the second half. They started hitting some shots. It feels a lot better than it felt the last couple of days around here, I know that."
Since that game last January in DeKalb, Laster is averaging 11.6 points per game. This year, he is averaging a team-high 17.2 points per game -- including 25 points per game over two MAC contests.
"I just try to take it one day at a time," said Laster of his success. "I just try to improve on my game and make sure the team is improving so we can keep our eyes on the bigger prize."
Laster has now finished in double figures in scoring 11 times this year, including each of his last 10 games played. He became the first Bobcat to score at least 30 points in a game this season. In addition to his big scoring output, he finished Saturday's contest with four rebounds, two assists and a block over 39 minutes of work.
"Tonight was certainly the best of his performances as a Bobcat," said Phillips. "He also did a good job defensively. Just a good all-around game by him. I sound like a broken record, but there has not been one person in this program who has put anymore sweat equity into this, even when they weren't necessarily getting the returns they wanted, than Mike. You gotta like seniors. He's a tough kid."
Freshman guard Teyvion Kirk (Joliet, Ill.) continued the strong start to his collegiate career, going 4-of-7 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the charity stripe en route to 16 points. He has now reached double digits in scoring a team-high 12 times this season. Kirk tied for the team lead with six rebounds and also chipped in two assists and a steal in 30 minutes.
"I've been working on my game -- especially my shooting -- a lot," said Kirk. "That just comes with confidence. So, if I'm open, I'm taking it. If it feels good, I'm going to take it, and I'm going to knock it down. That's what I'm going to try to do every time."
Junior guard/forward Gavin Block (Lincoln, Ill.) produced nine points thanks in large part to a 4-of-5 effort from the free throw line and also distributed three assists, grabbed two rebounds and tallied a steal in 35 minutes. As is often the case, Block's impact extended beyond his stat line as he drew several charges and was routinely diving on the floor for loose balls. Graduate forward Kevin Mickle (Brooklyn, N.Y.) went 4-of-6 from the field to finish with eight points off of the bench. He also logged a career-high four assists and hauled in three boards in 21 minutes. Junior guard Jordan Dartis (Newark, Ohio) hit three field goals -- including a pair of treys -- to compile eight points. He also added four rebounds, a team-high two steals and an assist in 36 minutes. Junior forward Doug Taylor (Columbus, Ohio) blocked a career-high six shots in addition to recording two points, six rebounds and a steal in 17 minutes. He became the first Bobcat to block at least five shots in a game since former forward Antonio Campbell did so in a 79-62 win over Northern Illinois in the 2016 MAC Tournament Quarterfinals on March 10, 2016, in Cleveland.
"Doug Taylor's energy was unbelievable from the get-go tonight," said Phillips.
Ohio raced out to a 36-22 halftime lead thanks in large part to a big first half by Laster, who led all scorers with 16 points off of 5-of-7 shooting – including three treys. The Bobcats held the Huskies scoreless over the first four-and-a-half minutes while opening up an 8-0 lead, with four points coming from Laster. Ohio's lead grew to double digits when Dartis knocked down a three with 14:42 to go in the opening half. The Bobcats led by as many as 17 with just over eight minutes left in the half when Dartis hit another trey, making it 27-10 in favor of Ohio. The Huskies responded with an 8-0 run to cut the Bobcats' advantage down to nine thanks in large part to four points by sophomore guard Eugene German. Ohio outscored Northern Illinois by a 9-4 count over the final 4:15 with Laster draining a triple and freshman guard Zach Butler (Spartanburg, S.C.) scoring on a pair of layups to send the Bobcats into the break up 14.
Northern Illinois opened the second half with a 10-2 run over the first 4:54, with junior wing Levi Bradley and junior guard Dante Thorpe each scoring four points during the stretch to cut Ohio's lead to six at 38-32. Kirk hit a timely three after Bradley's second layup to put the Bobcats back up by nine, but three-pointers by Thorpe and freshman guard Gairges Daow allowed the Huskies to shave Ohio's edge back down to six two more times over the ensuing 50 seconds.
Laster helped steady Ohio, though, taking advantage of an and-one layup after the three by Daow, then making a layup on the next possession for the Bobcats. A thunderous one-handed slam dunk by Mickle made it a 13-point lead for Ohio with just over 12 minutes to play. Laster made his fifth and final three with just over seven minutes remaining to increase the Bobcats' lead to 15 at 63-48.
Northern Illinois brought Ohio's lead back down to seven thanks to a 13-5 run over the next three minutes, with a three-pointer by sophomore guard Justin Thomas powering the comeback bid for the Huskies. Laster came through again for the Bobcats, though, drawing a foul on a layup and completing the conventional three-point play to put Ohio up 10 at 71-61 with just under four minutes to go. The Bobcats never led by less than double digits the rest of the way, with Kirk helping to put the game on ice with five points in the final 2:52.
Laster finished the second half with 15 points while Kirk scored 12 and Block totaled all nine of his points over the final 20 minutes.
As a team, Ohio shot 56.5 percent (26-of-46) from the field -- including 45 percent (9-of-20) from deep -- and 77.3 percent (17-of-22) from the free throw line.
German and Thorpe each scored 15 points to lead the way for Northern Illinois, with both players making six field goals and two free throws. Thorpe also notched four rebounds, an assist and a block in 33 minutes while German logged a team-high three assists, three rebounds and two steals over 36 minutes. Bradley finished with 14 points and a game-high seven boards to go along with two assists, two steals and a block in 36 minutes. Thomas went 4-of-7 from the floor with two triples to record 12 points off of the bench. He also compiled two rebounds, an assist and a steal in 27 minutes.
Ohio plays host to a second-straight MAC West Division foe when it welcomes Ball State (10-5, 1-1 MAC) to the Convo next Tuesday (Jan. 9) for a 7 p.m. ET matchup. The game will be streamed live on WatchESPN and the ESPN app.