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Freshman Kirk helps Ohio hold off Alabama A&M in opener

Bobcats' 19-point lead shrinks to 4 late

ATHENS – Freshman point guard Teyvion Kirk scored 16 points, and Ohio held off Alabama A&M, 61-53, to open the basketball season Saturday at The Convo.

Playing without Jason Carter, the Bobcats also got 12 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals from Gavin Block.

"It's going to be really important for our young guys in particular to take away the fact that we did hold them to 33-34 percent shooting for the game," Ohio coach Saul Phillips said. "We did hold them to 21 percent on threes, so there's some positive in that.”

Ohio (1-0) led 53-34 with 7:18 remaining before Alabama A&M made it interesting in the final minutes by getting to within four on a 17-2 run, capped by an Arthur Johnson 3-pointer with 1:50 to go. The Bulldogs forced a turnover for a chance to get even closer, but they returned the favor, and Block scored a layup to push the lead up to six.

Both teams committed turnovers, and De’Ederick Petty’s basket with 45 seconds left cut Ohio’s lead to 57-53. Another Ohio turnover followed, but Johnson missed, and Kevin Mickle followed with two free throws for the Bobcats with 30 seconds to go. After another Bulldogs miss, Kirk added two more foul shots to close out the game.

“It was an insane sequence of decisions that allowed the game to come back into question a little bit, and we will certainly take it and learn from it,” Phillips said. “Offensively, we lacked an identity at times tonight. When it's going great, we're just fine, but we need to shoot the ball better. Five-for-21 is going to get us beat from 3. I thought we generated some open looks, but we didn't put the ball in the basket, and, again, were able to lean on our defense enough to win the game."

Ohio overcame a poor shooting game (36.9 percent, including just 5 of 21 on 3-pointers) with its defense, which held Alabama A&M to 33.9 percent shooting (4 of 19 on 3-pointers) and forced 24 turnovers.

The Bobcats closed the first half with a 9-0 run to build a lead. They were up just a point before Block’s jumper with 2:51 started to turn things. Doug Taylor added a put-back layup, and Kirk scored two straight baskets and then a free throw before the break to make it 32-22.

"I kind of got those chills out at the first exhibition game, kind of like a feel how the game was going to go," Kirk said. "I just try to come in to every game feeling like it's practice. These guys just do a good job. They believe in me."

That momentum carried into the start of the second half with a Block 3-pointer and a Mike Laster basket. Andre Kennedy finally ended the Bulldogs’ span of more than seven minutes without a basket.

Ohio started the game strong, going up 12-4 on Kirk’s three-point play at the 14:52 mark in the first half, but Alabama A&M came back with eight straight points to tie it and went up 15-14 on a Johnson 3-pointer with 11:36 left in the half. The Bulldogs took an 18-16 lead on two Petty free throws at the 7:55 mark.

Taylor had game- and career-highs of 12 rebounds and four blocks while also scoring six points. Mickle came off the bench to score 10 points. In his first start since his freshman season, Laster, a senior, had eight points.

Without Carter, as well as injured freshman forwards Ben Vander Plas and A.J. Gareri, Ohio went small most of the game with Block playing power forward. Alabama A&M finished with a 46-40 rebounding advantage, including 9-7 on the offensive boards.

"I think we had good (defensive) pressure on the ball," Block said. "They made some tough shots going in the lane. I would say that's mostly just lapses shooting the ball. Five-for-21 on the three, that's not us. We can shoot better. Got to knock them in."

Mohamed Sherif led the Bulldogs with 14 points and seven rebounds, while Johnson had 12 points and seven boards. The two also combined for 11 turnovers, and the Bulldogs had only five assists as a team.

Carter suffered a right leg injury during Ohio’s exhibition win. Phillips did not share the diagnosis, but said Carter would be out for “a little while” and said he wanted to be cautious with the injury. He was on the bench in a walking boot during the game.

Ohio faces Clemson in the first round of the Charleston Classic at 5 p.m. Thursday at TD Arena. The game will be shown on ESPN2.

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