Strong start: Bobcats roll into semifinals with rout over KSU

No matter how the final games of the year play out, the Bobcats have already proven they’re a resilient bunch.

Ohio showed it again Thursday, with an 85-63 no-doubt win over Kent State in the quarterfinal round of the 2021 Mid-American Conference Tournament at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. The fifth-seeded Bobcats (14-7) barely trailed, shredded the nets and ushered No. 4 seed Kent State (15-8) out of the tournament.

Ohio guard Marc Sears (10) along with with Ben Vander Plas (5) and Ben Roderick, is fired up for the Bobcats’ win over Kent State on March 11, 2021 at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland. Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Midge Mazur

Oh yeah, the game was OU’s first in 13 days and just the fourth in the last six weeks.

“I was really, really happy with our mindset coming in,” said Ohio head coach Jeff Boals. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

Ohio’s roster was nearly intact. Only center Rifen Miguel wasn’t in the bench area at RMFH. The Bobcats’ final two games of the season were canceled after an unidentified player tested positive for COVID-19 on March 2.

The same couldn’t be said for Kent State. The Golden Flashes played a second consecutive game without MAC First Team forward Danny Pippen, who was third in the league in scoring at 19.3 points per game. KSU head coach Rob Senderoff declined another opportunity to clarify the situation, saying only it was his decision.

“I’d rather, frankly, talk about the guys who were available to play today. It was my decision and I’ll live with that decision,” Senderoff said. “I regret the outcome of the game, not the decision.”

It may not have mattered in any case, given how well Ohio shot the ball. The Bobcats spent most of the game in the 65 percent range before tailing off late and finishing 30-of-51 (58.8 percent). OU converted 9 of 18 from 3-point range.

Ohio led by double figures over the game’s final 24 minutes, and by at least 20 points over the final 13:40. The Bobcats had five players in double figures, and the Flashes were a miserable 20 of 52 (38.5 percent) from the field.

“Give Ohio a ton of credit,” Senderoff said. “The team that deserved to win the game, won the game.”

The victory was Ohio’s first in the MAC Tournament in Cleveland since 2017. It was the first game in the venue, the home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, for every player on the OU roster.

Junior guard Jason Preston shined in his RMFH debut, and finished with a game-high 19 points on a career-best 8-for-8 shooting performance.

“I was just picking my spots,” Preston said. “It’s nice to have that kind of day.”

Sophomore guard Lunden McDay added 18 points for Ohio. Miles Brown added 11 points, Dwight Wilson III and Ben Vander Plas each chipped in 10 points, and Ben Roderick finished with 9. If there was an open player, the Bobcats found them. And then Ohio finished the open looks off.

The Flashes got 16 points apiece from Tervell Beck and Malique Jacobs, but were unable to replicate – without Pippen and injured guard Mike Nuga – a 10-point win at Ohio back in January. Then, KSU piled up a 50-22 edge in points in the paint and a gaudy rebounding edge.

In the rematch, OU finished plus-10 on the glass and owned the lane with a 40-24 edge in points in the paint. Ohio is now 7-1 overall since that KSU loss.

“We thought this would be a toughness game,” Boals said. “Our guys have shown resiliency…things haven’t phased them.”

Ohio led 37-25 after a sharp-shooting first half. The Bobcats were rusty in some aspects – three starters had two fouls each and the ‘Cats had nine turnovers – but it didn’t show up in the shooting touch displayed. OU canned 15 of 22 shots (68.2 percent) in the first 20 minutes, had eight players dent the scoring column and bagged 4 3-pointers.

KSU led just once, at 3-0, and that didn’t last long as OU responded with a 15-1 surge capped by back-to-back triples from Roderick and Vander Plas to lead by double-digits less than seven minutes in.

The Flashes pulled to within four points, at 18-14, with 9:14 left in the half, but never got any closer. McDay, who had eight points in the half, scored on a jumper and a putback to give Ohio its largest lead of the half at 35-20 with 2:56 left.

Preston had nine points by the break, and his efficiency set the early tone.

“When (Preston) is in attack mode…we’re a really good basketball team,” Boals said.

The Bobcats didn’t blink in the second half either. Wilson’s tip-in made it a 20-point game, at 53-33, with 13:40 remaining. Ohio’s lead hit 28 points, at 69-41, with 8:32 left after Roderick splashed a deep 3 at the top of the key.

OU improved to 6-4 all-time in the tournament against Kent State, and avenged a 68-66 loss to KSU back in 2017 in the semifinal round.

Ohio advances to the semifinals, where the Bobcats will face top-seeded Toledo (21-7) in a 5 p.m. start at RMFH on Friday. The Rockets survived, 91-89 in overtime, against Ball State on Thursday.

Preston said Thursday may have been the first game in Cleveland for the current group of Bobcats, but they believe it’s just the first of three games they’ll play this weekend.

“This was step 1 out of 3,” Preston said. “We came here for much bigger goals and dreams.”

2021 MAC Men’s Basketball Tournament

Thursday, March 11 – Quarterfinals

  • Game 1: No. 1 Toledo 91, No. 8 Ball State 89 (OT)
  • Game 2: No. 5 Ohio 85, No. 4 Kent State 63
  • Game 3: No. 2 Buffalo (14-7) vs. No. 7 Miami (12-10), approximately 4 p.m. (ESPN+)
  • Game 4: No. 3 Akron (14-7) vs. No. 6 Bowling Green (14-10), approximately 6:30 p.m. (ESPN+)

Friday, March 12 – Semifinals

  • Game 5: No. 1 Toledo (21-7) vs. No. 5 Ohio (14-7), 5 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
  • Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, approximately 7:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Saturday, March 13 – MAC Championship

  • Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

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