Bobcats battle Bulls for MAC title

The only team to beat the Bobcats in the last two months just so happens to the last team between them and another Mid-American Conference championship.

Ohio (15-7) squares off with Buffalo (16-7) in the 2021 MAC Tournament championship game on Saturday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on ESPN2.

Ohio’s Ben Vander Plas (5) and the Bobcats took out top-seed Toledo in the 2021 MAC Tournament semifinals on Friday. Ohio face will No. 2 Buffalo in the title game on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Midge Mazur

The Bobcats are 8-1 overall in their last nine games, including a pair of dominating tournament performances in wins over Kent State in the quarterfinals and top-seeded Toledo in Friday’s semifinal round. Ohio, the fifth-seed, hasn’t played for the MAC title since 2013 – a 65-46 loss to Akron – and hasn’t won the tournament since 2012 (64-63 over Akron).

Standing in the way are the Bulls (16-7), the conference’s current dynasty and the winners of an 86-66 thumping they administered to the Bobcats back on Feb. 27 in the Convocation Center. The loss is the only one OU has taken since February began, and came at the end of a three-games-in-five-days stretch as the ‘Cats returned from a three-week, COVID-caused pause.

Ohio now is trying to win for the third time in three days, after a 12-day COVID break. OU head coach Jeff Boals said the key for Ohio is independent of whoever his team would face in the final.

“Any time you’re trying to win three games in three days, that last game is about toughness,” he said. “It’s about heart, determination, will.”

The Bulls, who survived a game-tying tip-in with 1.1 seconds left and then overtime to beat Akron 81-74 on Friday night, are not only trying to beat the Bobcats, but also to make history. Buffalo is still the defending tournament champion – the 2020 edition was wiped out by the pandemic – and claimed tournament titles in both 2018 and ’19.

No team in MAC history has won three straight tournament championships. The Bulls are also gunning for a fifth title since 2015, after also winning championships in both 2015 and ’16.

UB has lost just one game in Cleveland since the 2015 Tournament began, in 2017 68-65 to Kent State. There’s been no tougher out in Cleveland for the last seven years.

“A lot of guys have been in this for a while and all those kids have seen it up close and what we have to do be successful here,” UB head coach Jim Whitesell said. His team will enter with a seven-game winning streak, and victories in 10 of its last 11 games overall.

The teams split a pair of meetings this season, with Ohio winning a 76-75 squeaker at UB on Jan. 29 before the Bulls evened the score in late February.

The Bulls’ length and depth have bothered Ohio’s two most prolific players in the two previous meetings. Guard Jason Preston is averaging 12 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists in the two games this season, while forward Ben Vander Plas has scored just nine combined points in the two meetings. Both sets of numbers are well below their established averages.

The Bulls, meanwhile, are leaning heavily on the forward tandem of Jeenathan Williams and Josh Mballa. In two tournament games, Williams is averaging 22 points per game.

And Mballa has been the tournament’s most dominating force so far, averaging 19.5 points and 19.5 rebounds in two tournament victories. And Mballa has tortured Ohio on the interior this season, with averages 18.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in the regular-season matchups.

The Bulls are deeper, more length around the bucket, and an established pedigree. But Ohio is 6-2 all-time in MAC Tournament championship games, and the Bobcats’ share-the-ball style has produced one of the two best offenses in the league this season.

Whitesell said the 20-point blowout two weeks ago belongs in a museum for all the impact it will have on Saturday night.

“This will be a different Ohio team, I know that,” he said. “We know we have to play our A-plus game.

“Jason Preston…he just makes everyone else better. He’s always a problem, always.”

The Bobcats can complete a revenge tour, and re-establish itself as a MAC power with a win. Ohio hasn’t faced UB in the tournament since a 2017 semifinal loss, and the last OU win over the Bulls in Cleveland came in 2012 (77-74 in the semifinals).

But Ohio has already pasted Kent State and Toledo in the tournament, which previously had hung lop-sided losses on the Bobcats. OU can make it 3-for-3 if it can flip the result from the last meeting with UB.

In a season full of so much uncertainty, the Bobcats will be right where they hoped to be on Saturday night.

“This is what you play for,” Boals said. “My goal when I took over the job is to put up another banner.

“This team has earned the right … to play for a championship.”

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 74, No. 7 Miami 63
  • Game 4: No. 3 Akron 74, No. 6 Bowling Green 67

Friday, March 12 – Semifinals

  • Game 5: No. 5 Ohio 87, No. 1 Toledo 80
  • Game 6: No. 2 Buffalo 81, No. 3 Akron 74 (OT)

Saturday, March 13 – MAC Championship

  • Game 7: No. 5 Ohio (15-7) vs. No. 2 Buffallo (16-7), 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

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