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PHOTO: Taylor Jedrzejek/WOUB

Ohio Men’s Basketball: Preston, Vander Plas Lead ‘Cats to Blowout Victory over CMU

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ATHENS, Ohio — Jason Preston and Ben Vander Plas sat together at the podium in the post-game press conference. It wasn’t the first time, and it surely won’t be the last time these two sophomores face questions from the media after a game.

It is, after all, largely due to the play of Preston and Vander Plas that the Bobcats are where they are, or better yet, where they’re going.

For the first time since 2017, Ohio will travel to Cleveland to play in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament after thoroughly dominating Central Michigan on Monday night in the Convocation Center, pulling away to win 85-65.

“Jay (Preston) put it a great way a couple weeks ago,” Vander Plas said. “He said ‘This is what I dreamt of, this is what I ask for. A position like this to be a leader of a college basketball team.’

“I know we’re both only sophomores, but this summer we did all we could to get ready to lead. It’s been a fun journey, but it’s going to keep going.”

This isn’t a journey many thought would be possible as recently as the beginning of February. With the team sitting at 2-7 in conference play, losers of four straight games, it was hard to blame Bobcat fans if they thought 2019-2020 would be another lost season.

But, all of a sudden, the ‘Cats seemed to figure it out.

Winners of six of their final nine games, Ohio (17-15) played their way into a home game in the opening round of the MAC tournament and the Bobcats didn’t let that opportunity go to waste.

From the opening tip, Ohio jumped all over the Chippewas (14-18). Preston led an immediate onslaught, scoring five points and dishing out an assist in just the Bobcats first four possessions.

A few possessions later, Vander Plas took the reins, getting down into the post and hitting on his first four shot attempts. After the fourth, Central Michigan coach Keno Davis had seen enough and called a timeout with his team already down 21-6 before the second media timeout.

“(CMU) is a team that loves to push the tempo on offense and sometimes teams like that sacrifice on defense a little bit,” Vander Plas said. “We knew we could attack them.”

The lead the Bobcats quickly built to double figures was maintained for the remainder of the game thanks to the strong defense that has come to be expected of the Bobcats since they began their turnaround.

Central Michigan finished MAC play with the third-best scoring offense in the MAC, averaging 73.6 points per game. In their two games against the Bobcats, however, they averaged just 67 points. 

The biggest reason for that is the way Ohio guarded the 3-point line. While the Chips were by no means consistently making threes in the regular season, shooting just 32.8% from beyond the arc, the Bobcats held them to just 7-of-47 from 3-point range in their two match-ups this season.

“Coach Boals called us out one day when we were 2-7, we were like 284th in defensive efficiency,” Preston said. “The other day he said we’re down to like 190. It’s more pride when you’re that bad.”

The Chippewas were able to get the Ohio lead down to 10 with 2:40 to play in the game, mostly due to breakdowns on the offensive end. The Bobcats committed 11 turnovers in the second half, leading directly to 16 Central Michigan points.

“We knew they were going to amp the pressure up full court,” Ohio coach Jeff Boals said. “But our guys didn’t break. They found a way and settled the tide and made plays when they needed to.”

Those plays came from a host of Bobcats in the final minutes of the game. Connor Murrell converted an and-1, Lunden McDay made a pair of tough layups and Jordan Dartis capped off his final game in the Convo by icing away the game with a couple of free throws.

But it was the sensational sophomore duo of Preston and Vander Plas that drove the victory. 

Vander Plas had his best game in over a month, scoring 25 points, needing just 14 shots to do it, while also grabbing 10 rebounds and tossed out a career-high seven assists to register his sixth double-double of the season.

Preston wasn’t far behind, scoring 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting. He finished the game 4-of-5 from 3-point range and is now shooting 57.6% from long range in his last six games. He also tallied seven assists and six rebounds on the night.

The Bobcats, after being as low 11th in the MAC standings, head to Cleveland as one of the teams no one wants to face. Top-seeded Akron will face that challenge on Thursday afternoon in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

“Guys are playing at a high confidence level in their role,” Boals said. “These guys trust each other, they love each other and they know that they can do it.

“They’ve proven they can play with anyone in the league, now it’s just a matter of going out and doing it for 40 min.”