Worth the wait

Built in 1968, Ohio University’s Convocation Center has been the host venue for – as of Tuesday afternoon – 700 Bobcat men’s basketball games. Ohio has been on the winning side (526-174 home record) far more often than not.

But few of those previous 525 wins were as unexpected as the 90-73 shiner the Bobcats hung on visiting Akron in an afternoon matinee on Tuesday. Ohio was playing for the first time in three full weeks, had two all-league caliber players sitting out, was facing the hottest team in the league, and was trying to reverse an early-season result.

Ohio forward Ben Vander Plas celebrates a win over Akron with teammates Dwight Wilson III (left) and Jason Preston on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Photo by Jason Arkley

So what happened? The Bobcats never trailed and blew out the Zips in a result fueled by equal parts grit, tenacity and verve.

“(Head coach Jeff Boals) told us to go in with extreme confidence and we did that,” said sophomore wing Ben Roderick. “We had so much more energy than them.”

Ohio (12-6, 8-4 MAC) won its fifth straight game, and handed Akron (14-5, 12-4) its first loss in the last five games. The Zips had a chance to climb into a first-place tie atop the league with Toledo, but instead never led.

The Bobcats had barely practiced in the three weeks since their last game, a road win at Central Michigan on Feb. 2. And OU had to play without point guard Jason Preston (COVID-19) and forward Dwight Wilson III (injury). Both were on hand, but held out on Tuesday.

The duo represented Ohio’s top two leading scorers and rebounders. But the Bobcats made due with what they had. Little-used freshman Jalen White had a career-high nine points on 3-for-3 shooting. Freshman forward Colin Granger made his first start, and junior center Rifen Miguel played for the first time since Jan. 16. Granger and Miguel combined for 12 points and eight rebounds, and 10 personal fouls as both fouled out.

But all three competed, and played with confidence. It was enough.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Boals said. “But it was a great shot in the arm for our guys. They played with a lot of confidence. If you’re open, shoot the ball.”

Roderick and junior forward Ben Vander Plas each scored 17 points as Ohio had five players in double figures. Roderick had 13 in the first half, and Vander Plas – who added nine rebounds and four assists – scored 12 in the second half.

Ohio freshman point guard Mark Sears (10) fires a pass up the floor during the Bobcats’ 90-73 win over Akron on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 at the Convocation Center. Photo by Jason Arkley

Both talked about avenging a 90-70 loss at Akron in late December.

“They just punked us, dominated us really from the start. We had that taste in our mouth,” Vander Plas said.

“We had to show we could do the same thing to them,” Roderick added.

Freshman point guard Mark Sears had 12 points, seven rebounds and nine assists subbing in for Preston. Sophomore Miles Brown added a career-high 12 points and hit 10-of-12 free throws. Sophomore Lunden McDay chipped in 10 points.

Akron blistered the nets for 14 3-pointers on 25 attempts in the first matchup this season. But the Zips shot just 38.8 percent overall and only 8-of-32 (25 percent) from 3-point range in the rematch. Loren Cristian Jackson had 22 points on just 17 shots, but no other Akron player hit double figures.

Roderick drilled a right-wing 3-pointer on Ohio’s first possession and the Bobcats never gave up the lead. Another Roderick triple and Granger’s fast-break layup capped an 8-0 flurry and forced Akron coach John Groce into an early timeout as Ohio led 21-9 less than 10 minutes in.

Akron scored nine points in 80 seconds to cut the deficit to 23-18, but never got any closer. Contested finishes inside from Roderick and Miguel in the last 90 seconds sent Ohio to the break with a 41-32 lead.

Playing through Vander Plas nearly exclusively to open the second half, the Bobcats buried Akron in the first eight minutes after the break. When Vander Plas found McDay for a left-corner 3-pointer to cap an 11-2 run, Ohio led 52-34.

Despite plenty of histrionics, and one late-game scuffle, the game was decided in that sequence. Akron never got closer than 12 points the rest of the way, and OU twice pushed the lead out to as much as 22 points.

“Everyone has to do their job with (Preston and Wilson) out. Our guys gave us great production and did what they needed to do,” Roderick said.

Boals said he was hopeful Preston could return to the lineup as soon as Thursday, when Ohio takes on Eastern Michigan for another afternoon start in the Convo. He was less firm on Wilson, and thought freshman Sam Towns (COVID-19, and also in attendance on Saturday) could return for the final week of the regular season.

But the Bobcats, after the previous 21 days, were leaning into the old axiom of taking it one day at a time.

“Control what you can control today,” Boals said. “Tomorrow is a new day.”

Given every reason to write this one off coming in, the Bobcats instead crafted another magical moment in their historic venue. Excuses weren’t part of the game plan.

“(Boals) didn’t want to hear it,” Vander Plas said. “We’ve been off for a while, we haven’t practiced, blah, blah, blah…he said ‘We’re not buying into that’.

“That was a focus of ours. He told us everyone expects us not to play well, but we had a different mindset.”

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