Vander Plas Bobcats Basketball
PHOTO: Ben Weilgopolski/WOUB

Ohio Men’s Basketball: ‘Cats Grind Out Win over Western Michigan

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ATHENS, OH — By the time mid-February rolls around in the college basketball season, teams tend to be banged up and worn down. For this reason, this period is often referred to as the “Dog Days” of the season.

For the Bobcats, however, February has brought an energy level that has been missing from their play since before Christmas.

“We’re getting better. That’s what you want to do this time of year – you want to continue to get better. Our guys have a lot of energy right now,” Ohio head coach Jeff Boals said. “They come to practice with the mentality of ‘mind right, game right’.”

The game has been right for the ‘Cats (12-12, 4-7 MAC) since their bye last week, defeating Western Michigan (11-13, 4-7 MAC) 73-61 on Tuesday night in the Convo to win back-to-back conference games for the first time since January of 2019.

“We’re playing a lot harder and together,” Ohio guard Jason Preston said. “I don’t know how many shot clock violations or kills we had in the first half, but our ball pressure and togetherness was great.”

After forcing what was surely a historic streak of missed shots by Miami last Saturday, the Bobcats’ defense responded by showing that was no fluke. In the first half, Ohio held the Broncos to just nine points in the first 10 minutes of play, forcing seven turnovers in that span and regularly forcing Western Michigan to grind the shot clock down and hoist up a desperation shot.

“The last couple weeks of practice has been us just really getting after it and, obviously, it’s been showing in the game,” Ohio forward Ben Vander Plas said. “That’s starting to become who we are – trying to stop people.”

In their last four games, the ‘Cats have allowed just 58.3 points per game, a vast improvement from the 76.1 points per game they had given up in their first seven MAC games.

“A couple games ago, we came into practice and coach had some stats on the board. I think we were 11th in the MAC in total defense, giving up the second-most points,” Vander Plas said. “I think that bothered some guys.”

Those stats have spurred the Bobcats on the defensive end to some of their best performances of the season. In the last four games, they have also forced 53 turnovers and held opposing teams to just 37.1 percent shooting.

“Our offense wasn’t what it should have been, or needed to be, to win games. We weren’t outscoring people,” Boals said. “In order to get to where we want, that had to change.”

However, despite the strong defense over the last handful of games, the offense, especially in the first 10 minutes of the game, hasn’t been able to match the defense’s production.

Even though the Broncos has scored just nine points, they still held a 9-7 lead midway through the first half, making it four games in a row that the Bobcats have failed to break into double digits before the 10-minute mark.

“A lot of times, in the first four, six, eight minutes of the game, defenses are amped up,” Boals said of the early-game offensive woes. “I don’t think it’s hurt us to where we have a big deficit, but obviously, we love to play from in front.”

After a 7-2 Western run gave them their biggest lead of the game with 7:48 to play in the first half, the Bobcats responded quickly. In just 49 seconds, Ohio exploded with an 8-0 run, led by consecutive Jordan Dartis threes, to take a 17-16 lead.

The Broncos regained the lead on their last possession, but it would be the last time they would be ahead for the remainder of the game as the Bobcats finished the half on a 22-10 run to take a 31-26 lead into the locker room at halftime.

Western Michigan was able to get within two points on a couple of occasions in the second half, but Ohio always responded with a run of their own. The Bobcats finished off the Broncos with a 14-6 run when Western had cut the deficit to two with 9:42 to play.

Despite not taking a field goal over the final 4:14, the Bobcats were able to grow their lead by converting on 15-of-16 free throw attempts.

Preston, coming off of his first career triple-double, a feat that earned him MAC East Co-Player of the Week on Monday, shined once again. The sophomore finished with 21 points, 15 of which came after halftime. He also grabbed 11 boards and dished out seven assists, making Tuesday night his sixth double-double of the season.

He also gave the ‘Cats one of their top highlights of the season when he emphatically slammed home a putback dunk that sent the Convo into a frenzy.

“Normally I don’t crash (the boards), but the lane opened up and I saw where the ball was going to go so I timed it up right,” Preston said.

“SportsCenter Top 10, coming soon,” Vander Plas added.

Speaking of Vander Plas, he had a stellar night of his own. The sophomore finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, including a stretch in the first half where he scored 10 straight points for the ‘Cats.

Dartis also put up a double-figure scoring night, finishing with 15 points, but his presence was felt on the defensive end most of all. He recorded a career-high six steals, diving on the floor for loose balls multiple times.

“It’s huge, especially with the condition that JD’s body is in after all these years and all these injuries. Everyone is seeing that and it gets everyone going,” Vander Plas said. “Seeing JD get on the ground multiple times tonight was just phenomenal.”

“Those are game-winning plays, those are momentum changers. Those are the difference between winning and losing,” Boals said. “The games we lost, the close games, we weren’t making those plays. Now we are.”

Who knows if these are the games that people will, one day, look back on and say ‘that was when they figured out how to win’, but the Bobcats have new-found confidence about them that makes one believe that they could be.

The Bobcats have a chance to continue this winning streak on Saturday when they travel to Kent State for their first meeting with the Golden Flashes (16-8, 6-5 MAC) this season. Last season, Kent State swept the Bobcats in their two meetings.

That game is set to tip-off in the MACC on the campus of Kent State at 1 p.m. on Saturday.