Created on Saturday, 16 March 2013 Written by TOM WITHERS,AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins only plans on seeing Ohio guard D.J. Cooper one more time — wearing a cap and gown.
"I personally will be at his graduation," Hawkins joked. "I'll watch him take the walk across stage, I'll shake his hand and say, 'good riddance.'"
On Friday night, Cooper said goodbye to the Broncos.
Making a big play whenever Ohio needed one, 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.
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 coming to Akron.
"It's only right," Cooper said. "We lost to them twice and we felt like we gave the games away."
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 did anything that was needed. 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.
"I'm amazed at how coachable he is," said Christian, in his first season at OU. "To be honest, he's the easiest guy on this team to coach. He's a special player. He has an old-school vision of the game, which is rare."
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 John Groce, now at Illinois, but 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.
"A senior stepping up and making big-time plays," Offutt said of his teammate. "That's what he's known for."
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.
Cooper made sure they never lost it.
"I'm a big fan of his," Hawkins said. "You make a big run and he hits a dagger 3. He's the guts of a burglar.