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Ohio’s Jason Preston (0) dribbles the ball against Kent State’s Mitch Peterson (13) during an NCAA basketball game at the Convocation Center in Athens, Ohio on Feb. 28, 2020. Ohio won, 76-69. PHOTO: Yukai Peng/WOUB

Ohio Men’s Basketball: Late-Season Surge Earns ‘Cats Home Game in MAC Tournament

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ATHENS, Ohio — Somewhere along the 220-mile trip back to Athens from Muncie, Indiana on the 1st day of February, Ohio coach Jeff Boals decided his team needed a pick-me-up after a tough 55-64 loss to Ball State. What did Boals think would jump-start his team in the wake of their four-game losing streak?

Dairy Queen.

“When you’re going through a losing streak the way we were, you can be hard on yourself,” Boals said following Ohio’s 73-61 win over Western Michigan on Feb. 11. “My job as a head coach is to get the energy level and mood to change, so I decided we needed to go to Dairy Queen.”

The Bobcats’ (16-15, 8-10 MAC) turnaround in the weeks that followed put them in a position that none thought possible at the beginning of February: hosting a game in the first round of the MAC Tournament.

Following the stop for Blizzards, the ‘Cats won six of their final nine games, a span that included wins over five teams that were ranked ahead of them in the conference standings at the time. Ohio was close to winning two more of those games, as well, giving double-digit 2nd half leads in games at Bowling Green and Akron.

 “When you start winning, you understand why you’re winning,” Boals said on Feb. 28. “They come to practice and they’re locked in. They play hard and they play for each other.

“It started after we lost that game to Ball State. It wasn’t the Dairy Queen, it was Jason Preston and Ben Vander Plas. Those guys coming in and holding people accountable, holding themselves accountable. That was a big turning point.”

Since the surge of wins began against Miami on February 8, the duo of Preston and Vander Plas have put up numbers that rival any other top tandem in the conference, combining to average 34.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 10 assists per game.

Preston, who was named MAC East Player of the Week two out of the last four weeks, has arguably played the best basketball in the MAC over the last nine games, racking up 18.8 points per game while shooting a scorching 59.3% from the floor (66.7% from inside the arc, 46.2% from outside the arc). He also has dished out 7.6 assists per game while only committing 3.4 turnovers, good for a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Vander Plas, who cooled down in the second half of MAC play compared his hot start in the first, still averaged 15.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

“We’ve been staying together and continuing to have that chip on our shoulder,” Preston said. “We’re learning every game and just getting better each practice, following whatever coach Boals has for us. It’s paying off.”

One of the things that Boals harped on prior to the turnaround was the Bobcats’ defense. After their first nine MAC games, the ‘Cats gave up an average of 73.2 points per game. In the final nine, Ohio allowed just 66.9 points.

On their home floor, they’ve been even better. In the month of February, the ‘Cats gave up just 62.8 points per game, holding opponents to a dismal 36.9% shooting.

There lies the reason it was so important for this young Bobcats team to play their way into a home game in the MAC Tournament. Let’s let the numbers speak for themselves.

Home Away
Record 6-3 2-7
Points For 76.8 64.2
Points Against 70.7 69.4
Margin +6.1 -5.2
Field Goal % 45.5% 40.2%
Opp. Field Goal % 42.8% 43.1%

The opponent that Ohio will face on Monday night, Central Michigan, is a familiar one. 

The Bobcats beat the Chippewas 77-69 on February 18, outscoring them 20-12 over the final 6:51 of the game. Jordan Dartis hit seven threes on his way to 27 points to lead the ‘Cats. The win was number three on what became a five-game home winning streak to close the season.

After starting the conference season 6-2, Central Michigan dropped nine of their next 10 games to finish 6-10. The collapse was due in part to their defense, which ended the regular season ranked dead last in the MAC giving up over 76 points per game.

The Bobcats have not won a game in the conference tournament since 2017 when as a 2-seed, they beat Toledo in the Quarterfinals in Cleveland before ultimately losing in the Semifinals to Kent State. Their last win in an opening-round game came in 2014 when they beat Ball State.

The turnaround came faster than most would have expected for these Bobcats, but their recent success has fans buzzing about the potential of a trip to Cleveland.

If they get to make that trip, who knows, they may find a Dairy Queen on the ride up.