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Ohio basketball, Jason Preston
Jason Preston (0) has been one of the top distributors in the entire nation this season. Photo: Ben Wielgopolski, WOUB visuals

Ohio Men’s Basketball: ‘Cats ‘Excited’ for Third Matchup with Akron

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — After defeating Central Michigan in the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament, Ohio coach Jeff Boals was asked how he was going to pack for his trip to Cleveland.

“Three,” Boals responded.

For him to use those three suits, the Bobcats would need to play three games, which means they would play for the MAC Championship on Saturday night. Winning three games in three days is tough test for any team.

The Bobcats’ first test? The top-seeded Akron Zips.

“(Akron) is a team we know we can play with,” Ohio forward Ben Vander Plas said. “I’m just excited to get on the court against them.”

Vander Plas isn’t wrong. Despite winning six fewer games than the Zips during MAC play, the Bobcats came close to winning both games. 

In late January, Ohio erased a 16-point halftime deficit to have a chance to win on the final possession but ultimately lost by two. In the final week of the regular season, the ‘Cats travelled to Akron and built as much as a 14-point lead early in the second half before the Zips came roaring back to win by seven.

After building the 14-point lead with 13 and a half minutes to play, the Bobcats were outscored 27-6. A big part of that collapse was an ankle injury to Vander Plas, who checked the game with 11:53 to play. He was able to return a few minutes later, but was not nearly as effective.

“It’s something I’ve thought about the last couple days, buy you kind of move on,” Vander Plas said. “It is what it is. We’ve got another opportunity so we’re trying to get this one.”

The ‘Cats will have their hands full with the Zips, though. They won the MAC regular season title on the back of the conference’s second-best offense (75.4 ppg), fourth-best defense (67.9 ppg) and a league-best scoring margin of 7.4. Akron’s Loren Cristian Jackson was also named the MAC Player of the Year on Wednesday.

Thursday will be the first time a vast majority of the roster plays in a MAC Tournament game in Cleveland. Only Jordan Dartis, who helped Ohio advance to the MAC Semifinals in both 2016 and 2017, has ever played a game in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

And for much of the season, even a trip to Cleveland seemed out of reach for Ohio.

“They’ve come in every single day, win or lose, with the right mindset,” Boals said. “Those guys went through a rough stretch and those guys came in with energy. They continued to get better.”

After starting the MAC season 2-7, the ‘Cats bounced back to go 6-3 in their final nine games, climbing from 11th in the conference standings to 8th. Their only losses in the stretch run of the season came at the hands of No.1 Akron, No. 2 Bowling Green and No. 6 Kent State, all on the road.

The Bobcats will be on the road again, but on a bigger stage. Vander Plas, along with Jason Preston, expressed excitement about playing on that stage following their first round win, but they aren’t just happy to be there.

“We’re just trying to win ball games,” Preston said.

“We’re not satisfied yet,” Vander Plas added.

The Bobcats and Zips will tip-off from Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse at Noon on Thursday.