Preston’s star turn not enough as Ohio falls 77-75 at Illinois

It was a vintage Jason Preston shot.

Using a patient dribble, his lanky-limbed 6-foot-4 frame, and a knack for awkward angle shots, Ohio’s junior guard spun and hoisted a one-handed push shot from the lane that fell through.

It looked to be a potential game-winner, on the road, against a top 10 opponent. It capped a star-making day for Preston, who glittered throughout with a career-high 31 points, six rebounds and eight assists in 37 turnover-free minutes.

But it still wasn’t enough.

Jason Preston (right), seen here in 2019, had a career-high 31 points at No. 8 Illinois on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.

Junior preseason All-American Ayo Dosunmu hit two free throws with 2.3 seconds to help No. 8 Illinois escape the State Farm Center on Friday with a 77-75 victory. Illinois (3-0), which barely broke a sweat in two full-fledged routs on Wednesday and Thursday, was in a battle from buzzer to buzzer against the upset-hungry Bobcats (2-1).

“They had every desire to come in here and beat our ass,” said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. “And almost did.”

Preston had Ohio on the precipice of the program’s first win over a ranked opponent since March 12, 2012 – when the John Groce/D.J Cooper/Walter Offutt-led Bobcats upended Michigan in an NCAA Tournament pod in Nashville, Tenn.

Preston’s final bucket gave OU a 75-74 lead, but came with 7.7 seconds still left on the clock. On the ensuing in-bounds play, Dosunmu got the ball clean, raced up the left sideline around a back screen and charged hard at the rim. Ohio center Dwight Wilson III fouled him at the summit of his rising attack.

Dosunmu hit both free throws, and Ohio never got a shot to take the lead back. Illinois’ Trent Frazier made a free throw with less than a second left to wrap it up.

Ohio coach Jeff Boals said he whiffed on the defensive call at the end. Dosunmu, brilliant as well with 27 points, seven rebound and eight assists, got the ball too easily for starters and was running full speed by the time he hit halfcourt.

“I’ll take the hit on that. You take the in-bounders’ man and try to corral him. You know he’s going to be the guy that beats you,” Boals said. “We were going to switch the ball screen…he got downhill and give him credit. He’s a heck of a player. He made a big time play there at the end.

“Disappointed I wish I could go back and do it, but that one’s on me.”

It was a sour end to a great three-day start of the season for Ohio, and a two-hour Preston informercial on Friday. Preston dazzled with his usual assortment of a myriad of finishes over size in the paint, hit on 3-of-4 from 3-point range, and held up under scrutiny from a defensive-minded coach (Underwood) with high-level athletes to execute a plan.

It was the first 30-point game of Preston’s college career, but it was his seventh without a single turnover since becoming the starter late in the 2018-19 season.

Preston even developed a quick chemistry with Wilson, the transfer ruled eligible to play less than six days ago. Wilson finished with 12 points and eight rebounds.

“JP’s a great player. And great players make everyone around them better,” Boals said. “He puts that ball right there and now your job is to finish it.”

Junior forward Ben Vander Plas backed up Preston with 20 points. Ohio was mauled on the glass (45-25) but stayed in the hunt thanks to edges in points from 3-point range (27-18) and turnovers (plus-7).

“We executed the game plan really well, basically did everything we needed to do,” Preston said. “Sucks about the outcome but I’m very proud of our guys.”

Super-sized sophomore Kofi Cockburn added 13 points and 14 rebounds for Illinois, and Da’Monte Williams also had a double-double with 11 points and 10 boards. Freshman guard Adam Miller chipped in 10 points for the Illini.

Ohio led 49-41 with 13:40 remaining after Ben Roderick bagged a corner 3-pointer to finish off a 9-2 spurt for the Bobcats. But Illinois answered quickly, and eventually took its largest second-half lead at 58-53 with just over eight minutes remaining thanks to seven straight points from Cockburn.

It was tight until the end, with four ties and five lead changes over the last five minutes. Neither team held a double-digit lead the entire game.

Preston kept Ohio in contention, and with the lead most of the way, during a terrific first half. Preston scored 20 points in the first 20 minutes on 8-of-14 shooting and had six points during a 10-0 run that wiped out Illinois’ 30-21 lead.

But Dosunmu, who had 16 points of his own in the first half, hit a free throw with seven seconds left to give the Illini a 35-34 advantage at the break. It turned out to be an omen for the game’s finish.

With social media boiling in appreciation for Preston’s efforts and talent, Ohio took a top 10 team to brink in a true road game. After three games and one week, the Bobcats appear to be a serious MAC title contender.

It’s due in large part to Preston, whose guile, calm and athleticism all showed up in equal parts.

Preston is one of the best guards in the country,” Underwood said. “He’s an NBA talent.

“We couldn’t speed him up, that’s what was most impressive.”

During the postgame zoom press conference, Preston was interrupted at the start by several passers by offering him congratulations. He just dropped 30-plus points on a top 10 team with an All-American guarding him. He expressed thanks, then quickly and quietly got back to the task at hand.

What’s that feel like to play the way he did in that kind of showcase?

“Honestly I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win. I’m not really focused on matchups or one-on-one, I’m trying to win a 5-on-5 game,” Preston said.

“Just very proud of our guys. If we know we can hang with No. 8 Illinois, then we know we can hang with anyone in the country.”

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