Winning debuts

The only thing the Bobcats proved in their season opener – and maybe it was the most important thing at that – was they were ready to play.

Ohio wasn’t sensational, but solid, and worked over Chicago State for a 84-61 win in the 2020-21 lid-lifter on Wednesday afternoon at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill.

Ohio’s Ben Vander Plas (left) and Lunden McDay talk over matters during a game at Miami in the 2019-20 season. Photo by Jason Arkley

In the other game of the multi-team exempt event, No. 8 Illinois doused North Carolina A&T 122-60. Friday’s games begin with the Illini against Chicago State at noon, followed by the Bobcats against North Carolina A&T. Ohio wraps up its four-night stay in Champaign on Friday with a 1 p.m. start against Illinois.

It was the first game for the Bobcats since March 12 when they pulled off the floor minutes before the MAC Tournaments quarterfinal round was set to begin in Cleveland thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jeff Boals, now 2-0 in season openers with Ohio, said it was a completely different college basketball atmosphere.

Illinois was not allowing any fans or general admission spectators to the event due to concerns about spiking numbers of coronavirus cases nationwide.

“The crowd noise they were piping in … it was awful,” Boals said in a postgame radio interview. “You have to adapt and bring your own energy.”

Ohio (1-0) was fairly balanced with four players in double figures, and no one took more than nine shots. Sophomore guard Lunden McDay had a game-high 15 points, junior PG Jason Preston had 11 points, eight assists and six rebounds, and junior forward Ben Vander Plas added 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting.

Dwight Wilson III, the grad transfer from James Madison, had 10 points and seven rebounds in his Bobcat debut.

Chicago State (0-1), which played without head coach Lance Irwin, never led over the last 34:48. The Cougars last lead came at 9-7, and was wiped out by an 11-2 Bobcat spurt finished by a McDay 3-pointer.

Ohio never looked back, and finished with positive numbers in most categories. The Bobcats shot a sizzling 58.3 percent overall, and 42.1 percent from  3-point range with six different players notching triples. OU was plus-6 on the glass.

Besides 15 turnovers and 13 missed free throws, Boals had little to complain about. He went to the bench early and often, and 13 of the 15 players on the roster saw time.

“We got some valuable minutes for those freshmen and the newcomers,” Boals said. “it worked out pretty good.”

Rotation matters

Ohio used Preston, McDay, sophomore Ben Roderick, Vander Plas and Wilson as the starting five. The next five off the bench included freshman guards Mark Sears and Jalen White, sophomore guard Miles Brown, freshman forward Sam Towns and backup center Rifen Miguel.

The group to come in late, after the last media timeout, included sophomore center Nolan Foster, sophomore forward Mason McMurray, and freshman big Colin Granger.

The game situation allowed Boals to play the freshmen more minutes than initially anticipated.

But, it’s hard to draw many conclusions from what took place. Preston and Vander Plas are proven commodities, and Wilson played exactly like he’s played for much of his college career.

“He got some ‘man’ rebounds out there,” Boals said.

McDay was confident from 3-point range (3-of-5), and Ohio’s staff is expecting a nice jump from his season. He was dependable, consistent, and – yes – solid as a freshman in 2019-20.

“So consistent … We feel real comfortable with him on the floor,” Boals said.

But the Bobcats weren’t really tested or pushed. When things are tight, will the rotation still include 10 players?

Up next

NC A&T was simply overwhelmed by Illinois. The Aggies played a ton of zone, and the Illini not only bagged 17 3-pointers but amassed an incredible 62-18 rebounding edge with their superior size.

Senior guard Blake Harris had 12 points to lead the Aggies, who shot just 34.4 percent overall.

There’s no guarantee Ohio will face a tougher test in game 2 than it did in game 1. Boals believes it’ll be a better matchup, however.

“They’re a lot better team that what they were against Illinois,” he said.

Women open with a win

Bob Boldon’s crew scored a 76-72 win over Liberty in the Convocation Center on Wednesday afternoon in a game that – like the men’s affair – didn’t tell us something we didn’t already know.

In the case of the Ohio women, that means guards Erica Johnson and Cece Hooks are really good.

OU trailed by as many as 14 points in the second quarter before it flipped the game by winning the third 23-11.

Johnson was instrumental as she piled up team-highs of 31 points, 10 rebounds and two assists. Hooks added 18 points, seven rebounds and two steals.

It was Johnson’s fourth game with 30 or more points in her career.

“I was anxious for today. I wasn’t letting my game come to early so I had to adjust,” Johnson said.

But the Bobcats’ perceived issues – outside shooting, a third scorer and overall depth – were still evident. Players not named Johnson or Hooks were a combined 7-of-25 from the floor. Take out Johnson’ 5-of-16 3-point shooting and Ohio was 3-of-15 from 3-point range.

Madi Mace logged a team-best 13 minutes off the bench, but OU finished with just four bench points.

Ohio will learn much more about itself the next time out, which comes on Friday when national-power Notre Dame comes to the Convo for a 12 p.m. start.

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