Jason Preston Bobcats Basketball
Jason Preston (0) dribbles towards a defender during the Bobcats’ 88-50 win over Heidelberg on November 9, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weilgopolski

Ohio Men’s Basketball: Bobcats’ upset bid falls short against Illinois

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The Ohio Bobcats went into Friday afternoon’s game against the eight-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini as 18-point underdogs. What transpired, was a back-and-forth contest between a Big Ten powerhouse and a group from the Mid-American Conference that just wouldn’t quit. Even though the Bobcats would eventually fall 77-75 in the final seconds.  They put the entire college basketball world on notice for going toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the nation.

“I was a little disappointed that we didn’t win,” Ohio head coach Jeff Boals said.  “I thought we deserved to win the game. I’m super proud of our guys. They battled for 40 minutes and we just happened to come up short at the end, but to come up here against a top 10 team in the country on game three in three days, the fight, heart and toughness that our guys showed, I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

The Fighting Illini had come into the game having won their last two games by more than 60 points each time. Going into the game, Boals and the Ohio coaching staff put forth a game plan that would allow the Bobcats to counter some of the advantages that Illinois had over them, such as the height advantage. The Bobcat coaches had watched the game film from Illinois and learned about how they like to defend and made ways to succeed, that being shooting from the corner. One player who really excelled in this scheme was Ben Vander Plas, who would constantly be moved to the corner for an open shot and would attempt a team high 10 three-pointers, hitting four of them and scoring 20 points.

“We knew the way they were going to guard us and that certain looks would be wide open,” Boals said.  “We knew we had an advantage with BVP (Ben Vander Plas) down low. When they went big with their two big guys, we had an advantage on the perimeter with BVP. I thought our guys did a phenomenal job with executing and even with the shots we missed, we had some really good looks.”

The two teams were neck-and-neck pretty much the entire game. The Bobcats would start with the lead first and it would be pretty tight until Illinois pulled ahead to a nine-point lead in the first half 30-21, but the Bobcats were able to charge back and make it a one-point game by the half, 35-34. In the second half, the Bobcats went on a 28-11 run since being down by nine to eventually go up by eight, 49-41. However, the Fighting Illini would come back just as the Bobcats did. Boals knew that if they were to keep up with the Illini early on, they would be able to start to have the advantage.

“I think the biggest thing for us is that we want to get out to a great start and land the first punch. We knew that they were going to make a run because that’s a Final 4, Elite 8 team that they have. They made their run in the second half, got up eight I believe and then we made a run. Our mentality is bend but don’t break and we talk about it all the time. We stayed together and weathered the storm.”

There were a couple of key reasons as to why the Bobcats were able to be so effective in this game. The coaching scheme, both teams playing their third game in three days but what it all came down to, was the play of their first team All-MAC star, Jason Preston. To say that Preston

showed why he is one of the most underrated players in the country on national television would be an understatement. The junior from Orlando, Florida scored a career high 31 points, shot 13-23 from the field, was three of four from beyond the arc, grabbed 8 boards and registered 6 assists. Preston was key to keeping the Bobcats in the game late as with under 10 seconds left, Preston went one-on-one with Ayo Dosunum in the paint, spun off of him and floated it up and into the basket with 7.4 seconds left to give the Bobcats a 75-74 lead.

“Number one, he’s a great young man and two, he was excited about this game. You know, a national tv audience knows what we’ve known for a year now. He’s going to continue to get better and he’s as disappointed as anybody that we weren’t able to get the win, but he was phenomenal today.”

Illinois would call their final timeout to set up an inbound pass on Ohio’s side of the timeline. Dosunum, drove towards the basket, put up a shot that wouldn’t go, but he was fouled, which sent him to the line to shoot a pair of free-throws with 2.3 seconds left. Dosunum would hit both of them to give the Fighting Illini a one-point lead. He would finish the game with 27 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.

With no timeouts remaining, the Bobcats had attempted a full-court inbound pass. Ben Roderick threw it across the court in hopes that either Vander Plas or Preston would catch it, but it was intercepted by Trent Frazier, who was then fouled with 1.4 seconds left. Frazier would hit one free throw and purposely missed the second to run out the clock.

There were a couple of key factors as to how the Illini were able to escape with the victory. The biggest being the difference in the number of free throws between both teams. The Fighting Illini got to the line 24 times in the game, compared to just nine times for the Bobcats. Illinois won by a lot in the rebounding department, 45-25. Both teams shot pretty similar, Ohio was 47.7% for the game and Illinois was 48.3%. The Bobcats did a much better job than previous games in handling the ball as they only had seven turnovers compared to Illinois’ 16.

“We got to keep getting better,”  Boals said.  “When you play a team like this, your margin for error is very small and some of those things like free throws, 50-50 balls, those things add up in a game like this, but we’re good enough. Now we just got to keep building on it.”

The Bobcats are certainly going to use this as momentum for the rest of the season. Last year when the Bobcats played against Power 5 opponents, they never lost by less than 14. In their first matchup against one, in the middle of a pandemic against a team ranked number eight in the country, they only lost by two and had the lead with five seconds left. The Bobcats are now off until December 6, where they will have their home opener against the Cleveland State Vikings at the Convocation Center.

Ohio Basketball Jason Preston
Ohio’s Jason Preston (0) drives in the Bobcats’ game against Kent State during the 2019-20 season.