No passing fancy: Bobcats locked in again

Normally, playing Eastern Michigan’s 2-3 zone is a test of a team’s patience and survival skills in what could be a slog of a game.

Normally, a three-week break would shatter a team’s offensive rhythm and cohesion.

Ohio’s Lunden McDay (right, 15) watches a corner 3-pointer fall through during the Bobcats’ win over Eastern Michigan on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in the Convocation Center. Photo by Jason Arkley

The Bobcats blew both theories out of the water on Thursday as they whipped the visiting Eagles 86-67 at the Convocation Center in an honorific-filled afternoon. Ohio (13-6, 9-4 Mid-American Conference) is averaging 88 points a game and playing razor-sharp basketball on the offensive end since returning from a COVID-19 break on Tuesday.

“There’s no secret sauce,” offered Ohio head coach Jeff Boals. “Our guys have just been great.”

The win was the sixth in a row for the Bobcats, it’s longest streak since OU won seven in a row in 2013. Eastern Michigan (4-11, 1-10) dropped its seventh straight.

The streak was just one notable facet in Ohio’s glorious afternoon.

  • The win guaranteed Ohio one of the eight spots in the 2021 MAC Tournament, which begins March 11. OU started the day in fourth place, and now holds a half-game lead over Kent State and Buffalo for third place in the league standings.
  • The Bobcats set a program single-game record with 30 assists. OU made 34 field goals during the game, and only four were NOT set up with a key pass from a teammate.
  • Junior forward Ben Vander Plas became the 40th player in program history to score at least 1,000 points in his career. The plateau-reaching bucket came on a straight-on 3-pointer from the logo in the middle of the second half.
  • Point guard Jason Preston and center Dwight Wilson III were available, and played well. Neither suited up Tuesday during a home win over Akron. Preston logged eight points, nine rebounds and 12 assists, while Wilson came off the bench with 16 points on 7-of-7 shooting.
  • Ohio never trailed after the game’s first eight minutes, led by 13 at the half and never saw the margin dip below double figures in the second half.

The Bobcats weren’t supposed to be this sharp, this soon, after a three-week delay following a win at Central Michigan on Feb. 2.

“It’s Coach Boals and our coaches,” said sophomore guard Lunden McDay, who finished with 14 points. “They know how to get us back in shape. They built us up day-by-day. The chemistry was there in practice and it carried over to the game. We just take it day by day, game by game. Tomorrow at practice, we’re going to stay locked in.” 

Ohio had four in double figures. Besides McDay and Wilson, Vander Plas added 13 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. Sophomore wing Ben Roderick netted a team-high 17 points.

Eastern Michigan got 18 points from Ty Groce and Bryce McBride added 17 points. The Eagles shot 43.6 percent overall, but were clobbered 37-24 on the glass.

EMU scored the game’s first five points, and led 11-6 before the Bobcats’ penchant for passing took over the game.

Ohio took the lead 14-11 with a quick 8-0 burst, started and finished by Vander Plas 3-pointers from the left corner and then the right wing. After EMU pulled to within 14-13, the ‘Cats rattled off 12 straight points for a 26-13 lead. Four different players scored in the run.

“It’s been amazing to have everyone click as quickly as we have,” Vander Plas said.

Ohio extended its lead out to 17 early in the second half after consecutive layups from Roderick and Vander Plas. After that, the only drama was if Vander Plas would hit the 1,000-mark, and he did at the halfway mark of the second half.

The bucket, of course, came off an assist.

“I actually didn’t know I was that close until a couple weeks ago,” said Vander Plas. “It’s a blessing. I’m grateful to have been here the last few years and be able to hit that milestone. As cool as all that is, that’s not what we’re looking for as a group. The goal is to win a MAC Championship.” 

Another 12-0 run later in the half gave Ohio it’s largest lead at 80-56 with 3:50 remaining.

Afterward, Boals said Wilson was a game-time decision and that freshman Sam Towns and walk-on guard Michael Brown Jr. should be available moving forward. Towns and Brown were the last missing pieces from the roster, and sat out the last two games due to COVID-19 recovery protocol.

It’s more good news for Ohio, which has had nothing but since resuming the season. The Bobcats have work left to do, however, and start the final week of the regular season on Saturday with the home finale, a 2 p.m. tipoff against Buffalo.

OU will have road games at Kent State (Tuesday, March 5) and at Bowling Green (Friday, March 8) to wrap the season. The Bobcats have hit the ground running since their restart, and done so at a level that has left even Boals searching for answers.

“They do what they did…I don’t know what to say,” Boals said.

“We’re playing really well, and really well together. Give a lot of credit to our team.”

Ohio guard John Tenerowicz (center) breaks down the Bobcats’ pregame huddle prior to the Bobcats’ home win over Eastern Michigan on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Photo by Jason Arkley

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