Vander Plas could be focal point again as OU hosts EMU

The calls started isolated, one or two at a time. But over the course of mere minutes, they became a chorus.

“Church!” “You know it, Church!” “Church him!” “CHURRRCH!”

Ohio junior forward Ben Vander Plas goes to work inside during the Bobcats’ home win over Akron on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Photo by Jason Arkley

The calls from the Ohio bench were directed at junior forward Ben Vander Plas, as he used his patient, either-hand, shoot-or-pass approach to create plays in and around the lane during the early moments of the second half of Tuesday’s home win against Akron.

In that four-minute stretch, as the calls came louder and louder from his teammates, Vander Plas used every move in his arsenal and made every right read as the Bobcats doubled up a nine-point halftime lead and blew out the Zips to herald a winning return from a 21-day hiatus caused by COVID-19 protocol.

Vander Plas finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists, and served up a reminder that the Bobcats have more weapons than lead guard Jason Preston and automatic inside finisher Dwight Wilson III. It was the kind of performance Ohio needed as both Preston and Wilson were sidelined.

“That was one of the most fun and interesting games I’ve been a part of,” Vander Plas said.

The ‘Church!’ comments definitely caught his ear. It’s an abbreviated version of ‘Take them to church,’ which is another way of saying take the opponent in a one-on-one matchup. It’s become a calling card for Ohio assistant coach Lamar Thornton, who has urged players to be more confident and aggressive.

“Coach (Thornton) started saying it a couple months ago,” Vander Plas explained. “Someone would get the ball one-on-one, you take ‘em to church.”

Vander Plas, equal parts modern stretch forward and old-school tactician, has been an inside-outside matchup issue for Ohio opponents for years. Capable of hot streaks from the arc, the Wisconsin native is also able to use a bevy of shot fakes, reversals and determined footwork to score in the post.

And he’s a proven commodity. Now a three-year starter, Vander Plas needs just 12 points to reach 1,000 for his career, and is 22 rebounds away from the 500 mark.

With Ohio in a key spot, the Bobcats needed Vander Plas to be a steadying influence. And he delivered, like he was working an appreciative crowd from the pulpit with everything it needed to hear.

Draw a double-team and kick to an open shooter? ‘Church!’ Work a one-on-one for a layup? ‘Church!’ Drop a pocket pass to a cutting teammate? ‘Church!’

“I definitely hear them,” Vander Plas said. “It reminds you to keep doing what you do.”

Ohio (12-6, 8-4 Mid-American Conference) will be looking for more of the same from Vander Plas when it hosts Eastern Michigan (4-10, 1-9) in the Convo on Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m. The game will be streamed live on ESPN3.

It’s the second of three games in five days, and second of five in 11 days to end the regular season for Ohio. The Bobcats have all but locked up a spot in the 2021 MAC Tournament, but want to be firing on all cylinders as soon as possible after losing three weeks due to the coronavirus.

The Bobcats will be bringing in a five-game winning streak, the team’s longest since it also won five in a row in 2016. If OU knocks off EMU for a sixth win in a row, the Bobcats will have their longest streak since Ohio won seven straight in 2013.

Then, it was Jim Christian, D.J. Cooper, Walter Offutt and company leading the way as OU won 12 of 13 games in one stretch to claim the MAC regular-season title. A title remains out of reach for now with Toledo (18-6, 13-3) the likely regular-season champion.

But it’s another chance to get healthier, and back in rhythm before the tournament begins.

The Eagles have lost six straight and endured their own nearly month-long break between games. EMU’s restart has consisted of losses at Kent State (64-51) and versus Bowling Green (82-69).

Ohio head coach Jeff Boals hit all the right buttons on Tuesday, and he’ll need to do it again. It’s possible Preston and Wilson will be available, and it’s possible both could remain sidelined. In that second scenario, Boals will need the timely contributions he saw from freshmen Mark Sears, Colin Granger and Jalen White to help solve the Eagles’ usual 2-3 zone.

“It’ll be, probably even more than today was, a bench game,” Boals said Tuesday. “The bench is gonna have to be big for us again.”

It also couldn’t hurt if Vander Plas has a follow-up sermon ready to go.

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