Ohio takes out top-seeded Toledo in MAC semifinals

Jason Preston and Ben Vander Plas broke the Rockets early on, in the middle of the contest and then again at the end.

And now the Ohio duo will have a chance to help the Bobcats break a nine-year Mid-American Conference Tournament championship skid.

Preston scored 27 points, Vander Plas added 26 and the Bobcats led wire-to-wire in upending Toledo 87-80 in a 2021 MAC Tournament semifinal on Friday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland. The Bobcats (15-7), the tournament’s five seed, punched their ticket to the title game set for Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. back at RMFH.

Dwight Wilson III dunks during the second half of Ohio’s 87-80 win over Toledo in the 2021 MAC Tournament semifinal on March 12, 2021 in Cleveland. Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Midge Mazur

“Excited…huge win,” said Vander Plas, who added eight rebounds and seven assists. “It’s on to tomorrow. We’re excited to be playing.”

Toledo (21-8), the MACs top seed, never led after OU opened the game with an 8-3 flurry keyed by Preston’s 3-pointer and Vander Plas’ put-back bucket. The Rockets, the MAC’s top 3-point shooting team, was held to a 6-of-29 effort (20.7 percent) from the arc.

Senior guard Marreon Jackson, the MAC MVP this season, finished with 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting, but had just 10 points by the time Ohio built a 17-point lead early in the second half.

Toledo has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1980.

“It’s definitely sad,” Jackson said. “I wanted to do that for the Toledo community. Hopefully next year they can do that.”

Ohio had four players in double figures as Dwight Wilson III picked up a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, and Ben Roderick chipped in 10. The Bobcats owned the glass with a 42-33 edge, and gathered in 17 offensive rebounds.

Vander Plas scored on an offensive rebound, then added a pretty driving score from the left side as OU took its largest lead at 68-50 with 8:32 remaining. The ‘Cats led by 14, at 79-65, with 2:33 left.

Toledo, also buoyed by Setric Millner Jr.’s 26 points and nine rebounds, tried to engine a desperate comeback. With hard, full-court pressure, the Rockets got to within seven, at 79-72 with 95 seconds left after a Jackson drive.

But Vander Plas drilled a deep left-side 3-pointer with 58 seconds left, and Preston scored on a layup via a press-breaker with 36 seconds remaining to steady the ship and hold on.

“Those guys…they have been solid for us all year,” Boals said of the high-scoring duo. “Those two have chemistry together.”

And a confidence which has bled over to the rest of the roster. Ohio set the tone early and had the Rockets reeling from the start.

In two tournament games in Cleveland, the Bobcats have trailed for a grand total of 13 seconds. OU has played with the lead for 78 minutes and 16 seconds of the 80 total minutes played.

The sharpness is surprising for Ohio, which entered the tournament with just three games played over the final 36 days of the regular season. But the Bobcats have been able to harness what Boals called “Uber, ultra, superior” confidence and had used that to punch a ticket to the MAC final for the first time since 2013.

Preston was transcendent in the first half, during which he scored 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting with a 4-of-5 mark from long range. He was fed for three layups by Vander Plas, who had 12 points himself in the first 20 minutes.

“We’ve been talking to him about it all year. When Jason’s in that mode, he’s something special,” Vander Plas said. “Jay led us…it’s fun to follow him when he’s playing like that.”

Ohio led 16-8 less than five minutes in. Toledo got as close as 22-19 with 8:10 left in the half, but crept no closer the rest of the way. A 7-0 run, with Preston’s deep right side 3-pointer bridging a pair of layups, provided an immediate answer.

Another 7-0 run, started by Vander Plas’ reverse layup and ended by his left-side trip, helped the ‘Cats to a 43-31 lead at the break.

The Rockets, perhaps feeling the weight of the No. 1 seed, hit just 3 of 13 from 3 in the first half. OU was a sizzling 50 percent (7 of 14).

“I told our guys before the game the pressure is on (Toledo),” Boals said. “Play free, have fun, play for each other.”

It’s a message the Bobcats have been heeding. Despite a pair of late-season COVID pauses, Ohio is 7-1 in its last eight games, and has sprung the only two upsets – on either the men’s or women’s side – of the tournament.

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 (15-7) vs No. 3 Akron (15-7), approximately 7:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Saturday, March 13 – MAC Championship

  • Game 7: No. 5 Ohio (15-7) vs. Game 6 winner, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

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