Ohio battles Bulls while looking for seventh straight win

With three games to play in the regular season, the Bobcats already have secured a spot in the 2021 edition of the Mid-American Conference tournament.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything on the line Saturday when Ohio hosts Buffalo at the Convocation Center in the home finale. Tip off set for 2 p.m. and the game will be streamed live on ESPN3.

Ohio center Dwight Wilson III (right) and guard Jason Preston defend a screen against Eastern Michigan on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in the Convocation Center. Photo by Jason Arkley

The Bobcats (13-6, 9-4 MAC) have stitched together their longest winning streak in eight years with a six-game run that began in mid-January and has continued despite a three-week COVID-19 layoff earlier this month. Ohio picked up in fine fashion this week with definitive home wins over Akron on Tuesday, and then Eastern Michigan on Thursday.

Now, Ohio will try to beat the Bulls (11-7, 9-5 MAC) for a second time this year and end the year with a 9-2 mark in the Roundhouse on Richland.

Round two with UB presents a tremendous swing opportunity for OU. Thanks to Bowling Green’s win over Akron on Friday night, the Bobcats could move from third to second in the overall MAC standings with a victory over the Bulls. But a loss? Well, that would drop Ohio all the way down to fifth with two games to play.

The game will be the third in five days for both teams as Buffalo has also had a good week with comfortable wins at Northern Illinois (102-74) and versus Central Michigan (85-73).

Ohio is trying not to ponder the potential tournament seeding ramifications moving forward. The one-game, one-day-at-a-time approach has been a reason for the success of late say both players and head coach Jeff Boals.

“It’s one day at a time, one game at a time,” Boals said Thursday. “All that other stuff, that’s for me to think about.

“Seeding may be a moot point anyway. It’s as wide open as it’s ever been.”

The Ohio-Buffalo rematch could be a wide-open affair as well. OU won the first meeting in late January, 76-75, after Dwight Wilson scored the game-winner on a putback with 25 seconds remaining. The Bulls missed two potential game-winners in the final seconds.

Buffalo is 5-1 since that loss, and figures to be dialed in on Wilson – who had 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting in the first matchup. Efficiency has been Wilson’s forte all season as he’s averaged 15.6 points per game on 70.5 percent shooting.

Wilson is second in the nation in field goal percentage, and is on track to break the single-season Ohio record for shooting. Bobcat legend Gary Trent (65.1 percent) currently holds the record.

Ohio has been locked in during the winning streak. Ohio is plus-13 in points per game, plus-8 in rebounds per game, and shooting roughly 10 percent better than the competition during the stretch.

“We ain’t changed nothing,” said guard Lunden McDay on Thursday. “We’re having good energy and staying focused.”

Boals believed his team would finally be at 100 percent this weekend following the program’s weeks-long COVID-19 outbreak. Wilson, for instance, came off the bench Thursday and is expected to log starter’s minutes against the Bulls. Point guard Jason Preston got the start Thursday and held up well while playing major minutes.

Ohio will need everyone it can get to battle the Bulls on the boards. Buffalo lead the nation in rebounds per game with 44.0, and the Bulls are second nationally in offensive rebounds. Forwards Jeenathan Williams (17.9 points, 7.4 rebounds per game) and Josh Mballa (14.7, 10.1) spearheaded an effort that led to 74 points in the paint at NIU on Tuesday.

“It’s going to come down to rebounding,” Boals said.

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