Bobcats and RedHawks renew rivalry, finally

The last time the Bobcats battled for the proverbial bricks they claimed the toughest, grittiest win of their strong finish to the 2019-20.

Now, 10 months later, Ohio is hoping that seeing the RedHawks again will foreshadow a winning streak as it hopes to get back into the Mid-American Conference race.

Ohio (6-5, 2-3 MAC) will welcome in Miami (4-3, 1-1) for a 7 p.m. start on Tuesday night at the Convocation Center in Athens. The game will air live on CBS Sports Network.

Ohio’s Jason Preston looks to pass against Miami in a 2020 matchup in the Convo. Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Abigail Dean

The Bobcats enter after a humbling 17-point road loss at Toledo on Friday night when the Rockets shot better than 61 percent in a game that wasn’t even as close as the final score. The loss has OU sitting at at seventh place in the MAC standings; only the top eight teams qualify for the conference tournament in 2021.

With 15 games remaining, there’s still plenty of time to in theory challenge either Bowling Green or Toledo (both 5-0 in MAC) for the regular-season championship. But a loss to RedHawks could leave OU as low as 11th in the league at just about the one-third mark.

“There’s always something on the line when you play Miami,” said head coach Jeff Boals, referring to the long-running rivalry series known as ‘The Battle of the Bricks.’

Boals is well versed in the history of the series, having played on some of the best teams in Ohio’s long run under former head coach Larry Hunter. He can tell stories about beating Miami for a MAC title at Battelle Hall in Columbus, or dealing with a painfully held bladder during a three-overtime game as a bench-warming freshman who consumed too many orange slices and water.

In a year, a season, that has been weird and alien and off-putting throughout because of the pandemic, the return of a well-known rival on the schedule can conjure up some sense of normalcy.

“I don’t think (the rivalry) ever changes,” Boals said. “It never gets old.”

The RedHawks, however, are trying to change. Nike Sibande, a high-usage point guard who transferred to Pitt, is gone, and it’s left Miami working on more team-oriented play.

That new approach is reflected with four players averaging in double figures and three players all with 2.5 assists (or more) per game. The guard-heavy rotation has been leaning most heavily on junior Mekhi Lairy (11.4 points per game, 52.6 percent from 3) and senior forward Dalonte Brown (10.4 points, 7.o rebounds).

“I think they’re better than last year,” Boals said. “Brown looks healthy now, and the whole team moves the ball better.”

Miami played for the first time in nearly a month on Saturday with a 70-58 home win over Northern Illinois. Prior to that, the RedHawks’ last game was on Dec. 19 – a 90-69 loss to visiting Buffalo. Miami shuttered the program for a couple weeks due to coronavirus issues.

It’s also been that long since the last time Ohio had junior point guard Jason Preston in the lineup. Preston, Ohio’s leading scorer and assist-maker, has missed four games – the ‘Cats are 2-2 in the stretch – with his last game a road loss at Akron on Dec. 22.

But Boals said Monday there’s a chance Preston (lower body injury) will go against Miami. Preston logged some practice reps on Sunday.

“We’ll see how he responds (Monday) and there has to be no setbacks,” Boals said. “Right now, it’s probably 50/50.”

Tuesday’s meeting will the 208th in the series, and Ohio leads 113-94. It’s been even more lopsided of late, as the Bobcats lead the series 16-3 since the 2011-12 season. This was to be the second meeting of the season, but Ohio’s visit to Oxford on Jan. 29 was postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the Miami program.

And that last meeting? That was an Ohio victory, 67-65 in overtime, at Miami on March 6, 2020. Ohio trailed by 10 with less than three minutes to go, but rallied for an improbable win that clinched a home game in the first round of the MAC Tournament.

A week later, the pandemic arrived and shut down the MAC Tournament.

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