Bowling Green 6-foot-5 senior guard Leon Ayers III scored a game-high 31 points, but what was even more important to Ayers was the Falcons’ defensive effort in an 83-73 Mid-American Conference victory over Miami at the Stroh Center Saturday.
“On a personal level it feels really good, and it’s good to score and stuff, but I’m not really focused on that,” Ayers said.
“I just want to win ballgames. Coach (Michael Huger) challenged me to play better defense today, and I feel like I played a heck of a job tonight, so that’s all I was really focused on was the defensive side of the ball today, and the offense was clicking so it was a good day.”
The Falcons move to 9-10 overall and 3-3 in the MAC, while Miami falls to 7-12 and 1-5.
Even Huger says he will take Ayers’ strong defensive play over scoring 31 points after the Falcons had given up 100 points or more in each of their last two games.
“He was able to attack in a variety of ways and was able to knock down shots,” Huger said. “I was more impressed with his defensive effort.”
Huger says if his guys don’t play defense, there is a price to pay.
“If you don’t play defense, you are not going to play,” Huger said. “That’s the message that we related to those guys.
“All of them want to play and all of them were able to step up and defend much better than we did the previous two or three games. I just wasn’t impressed with our defensive intensity and I thought we brought that defensive intensity from start to finish today.”
The Falcons had dropped three straight league games coming into Saturday’s contest, including a 108-92 loss at Western Michigan and 100-77 loss at Buffalo, so the message was loud and clear.
“I felt like coach made us put more of an effort on us putting more effort on the defensive end, communicating more,” Ayers said.
“That’s really all we’ve been doing in practice is just talking, playing defense, and playing hard so he doesn’t have to coach our effort and he can worry about other things like the more technical side of the game. So, it was just our defense picking up in the beginning.”
The RedHawks came into the game leading the MAC in three-point field goals made, but the Falcons extended to the perimeter, limiting Miami to 3-of-17 (18%) shooting from behind the arc.
Ayers says the Falcons’ defense was a big reason why BGSU opened a 22-11 lead just over nine minutes into the contest and then maintained that lead the rest of the game.
While the RedHawks were not connecting from long range, BGSU was. Ayers was 3-for-5 from beyond the arc and sophomore guard Kaden Metheny was 4-for-7, scoring 15 points.
Ayers’ two misses from downtown were his only misses of the night as he went 10-for-12 from the floor, finding ways to slash through Miami’s defense and get to the rim. Ayers also had four assists, blocked two shots, and was fouled six times, connecting on 8-for-9 from the free throw line.
Metheny grabbed four rebounds and had two assists and senior guard Samari Curtis scored 10 points, including 8-for-8 shooting from the line.
As a team, the Falcons shot 56% (27-for-48) from the field, including 7-for-16 from the arc, and made 22-of-24 free throws.
Another big help was the return of two players, including Metheny, after three players had to miss the Buffalo game because of either an injury or illness. Sam Towns, a 6-9 junior forward, is still out but is expected to return.
Taking over the post was 6-9 redshirt freshman forward Ubong Abasi Etim, 6-8 junior forward Rashaun Agee, 6-7 senior forward Gabe O’Neal, and 6-7 senior forward Chandler Turner.
The foursome combined to grab 19 rebounds even though O’Neal fouled out and Etim and Agree were playing with four fouls each down the stretch.
Agee had nine points, four rebounds and blocked two shots, Etim had four points, four rebounds and two steals, and O’Neal scored four points.
Chandler scored four points, grabbed eight rebounds, and had two assists in helping the Falcons to a 33-25 advantage off the glass. Ayers said the combined effort by the Falcons’ big men paid off.
“It makes a big difference because we have some pretty big pieces on our team,” Ayers said. “Not one man can do it by himself, so we all have to mesh together and work together.
“It hurts for Sam to be out but once he’s back I feel like we’ll be an even bigger threat,”
Local Bowling Green High School product Isaac Elsasser, a 6-4 senior guard, scored four points and senior starting guard Brenton Mills contributed two points and four rebounds, playing all but about five minutes running the offense.
Miami was led by junior guard Morgan Safford, who had 20 points and four rebounds, senior forward Anderson Mirambeaux had 18 points and three assists, and fifth-year guard Mekhi Lairy had 15 points, five rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
The RedHawks finished 30-for-61 (49%) from the floor and made 10-of-16 (63%) from the charity stripe.
Miami was able to get the margin to single digits, 76-67, with 2:24 remaining, so Ayers said it was key to stay focused.
“It’s just staying under control,” Ayers said. “When we huddle, we just talk about what we see and what we need to do. I’m just trying to keep the guys to remember to just stay calm, stay easy, keep it calm and we’ll be good.”