D.J. Cooper scored 21 points with 10 assists to lead defending champion Ohio to a 74-63 win over Western Michigan in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference tournament on Friday night.
The Bobcats (24-8) will play top-seeded Akron in Saturday's championship for the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Zips (25-6) advanced with a win over Kent State.
Last year, Ohio beat Akron for the MAC title, and the second-seeded Bobcats made a sweet run through the NCAAs before losing to North Carolina in the national quarterfinals.
Walter Offutt added 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Bobcats, who went 14-2 in conference play — both losses were to Akron.
Nate Hutcheson and Darius Paul, the MAC's top freshman this season, scored 16 apiece for the Broncos (20-12).
The MAC's player of the year, the silky smooth Cooper came through with a big play whenever the Bobcats needed one.
He made four 3-pointers, dropped all five free-throw attempts, and the senior from Chicago settled down Ohio's offense just when it appeared the Bobcats were about to unravel.
Ohio returned all five starters from last season's team that won the MAC title — 64-63 over Akron — and beat Michigan and South Florida in the NCAA tourney before bowing to the Tar Heels. That team was coached by Jim Groce, now at Illinois, but Jim Christian, who led Kent State to so much success, has the Bobcats again making noise in March.
Ohio has had trouble keeping big leads all season, and a 17-point halftime lead dwindled to five when Broncos guard Brandon Pokley knocked down a 3 with 12:04 left.
The Bobcats' lead was further reduced to 48-46 on a basket by Shayne Whittington, allowing a small contingent of Western Michigan fans to start thinking upset. But Cooper, as he has done so many times during a brilliant four-year career, knocked down a 3 and Offutt followed with one of his own to put Ohio ahead by eight.
The Broncos, though, weren't going away and Hutcheson's dunk with 5:01 remaining pulled Western Michigan within six.
Of course, Cooper responded.
The only Division I player in history to have at least 2,000 points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 career steals, Cooper converted a three-point play, and after a steal by Offutt, Jon Smith scored on a baseline dunk to give Ohio a 63-54 lead.
Any thoughts Western Michigan had of making a late comeback were ended by Nick Kellogg, the son of CBS broadcaster Clark Kellogg, who dropped a pair of 3-pointers in the final 2:23.
The Bobcats, who have a tendency to fall in love with 3-pointers, showed off their marksmanship in the first half by making 7 of 9 from long range.
With the scored tied 8-all, Cooper began Ohio's barrage by draining a long 3 to trigger an 11-0 run, and Ohio eventually built a 19-point lead.
The Broncos did their best to stay close and got within 14. But Cooper hit his third 3-pointer of the half — to go with eight assists — with 53 seconds remaining and the Bobcats left the floor at halftime leading 41-24 and brimming with confidence.