Dream fulfilled: Ohio blisters Buffalo in MAC title game

Jeff Boals has been dancing all season, and typically greets his team with an ad-libbed set of steps and gyrations after each big win.

Now the rest of the Bobcats and Ohio University can feel free to join in.

Ohio’s Ben Roderick (3), Lunden McDay (15) and Jason Preston celebrate the Bobcats’ win in the 2021 MAC Tournament title game on Saturday, March 13 in Cleveland. Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Midge Mazur

Ohio capped a dominating tournament run on Saturday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse with a decisive 84-69 victory over Buffalo in the championship game of the 2021 Mid-American Conference tournament.

The Bobcats (16-7), thanks to three blowout wins in three days in Cleveland, will be headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 – when they reached the Sweet 16. Ohio will receive the MAC’s automatic bid to the event when the seedings are announced Sunday night on CBS.

It was an unbelievable performance by our guys,” said Boals, who became the third coach this year to guide his alma mater to the NCAA Tournament, joining Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and Michigan’s Juwan Howard.

“The most proud I am of this group is their character (because of) what they’ve been able to go through this last month and a half to get to this point.”

Buffalo (16-8) was trying to become the first team in conference history to win three consecutive tournament title. Buffalo won back-to-back crowns in 2015-16, and then again in 2018-19 before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled all but the first round of the 2020 edition.

The loss snapped a seven-game winning streak for the Bulls, who lost for just the second time in their last 15 games in Cleveland as part of the MAC brackets.

The truth is Buffalo never had a chance on this night. Tournament MVP Jason Preston came out blazing, the Bobcats followed suit, and OU led 41-21 by halftime.

Preston finished with 22 points, seven assists, six rebounds and five steals, but dismantled UB early with 17 first-half points. He also broke the 1,000-point mark for his career with his first 3-pointer of the night before the game was seven minutes old.

Ohio trailed 3-0 and 5-2 before flipping the game with 16-0 run that the Bulls never recovered from. Preston started the surge with a pair of assists to Ben Roderick – who added 20 points – then added at tear-drop floater from the lane and a right-corner 3-pointer.

Ben Vander Plas added nine points, five rebounds and five assists, and joined Preston on the all-tournament team. His deep 3-pointer from the left wing capped the 16-0 run and gave OU an 18-5 lead less than eight minutes in.

Buffalo hit just two of its first 10 shots and had seven turnovers in those eight minutes, and never got the lead below 10 points the rest of the way.

“They were just sharper than us tonight,” said Buffalo coach Jim Whitesell. “Their defense really bothered us in the first 15 minutes.”

Dwight Wilson III who powered in 17 points and added seven rebounds for Ohio, who took the 20-point halftime lead after Preston capped his furious first half with a deep 3 two seconds before the break.

Ronaldo Segu had a team-high 24 points for Buffalo, but just two points in the first half. Josh Mballa had 16 points and 11 rebounds, but just five points after the break. Jayvon Graves added 13 points.

The Bulls did manage one second-half run, and cut the margin to 10 at 52-42 with 10:23 left on Segu’s 3-pointer.

But Preston and Vander Plas took control right back. Vander Plas hit a corner 3 off an in-bounds play, and Preston fed Wilson for a 3-point play inside. Preston then finished off the 9-0 run by driving the lane and kicking it back out top to Vander Plas, who canned the 3-pointer.

The Bulls never got closer than 12 after that.

“We knew we couldn’t get it to single digits,” Preston said. “We stayed poised and we gutted it out.”

One year after the Bobcats were ushed off the floor mere minutes before a tournament matchup with Akron because of the pandemic, they were posing around the trophy at midcourt. There were no fireworks or confetti drop, but the win felt the same for Boals, who danced as usual and twirled the net for the Ohio fans who provided what was the first real home crowd support for the Bobcats all season.

“It’s just so surreal,” Preston said. “We’ve had this goal … these last couple week’s we’ve really locked in. We really wanted it.”

Ohio won the tournament despite a pair of COVID-causes pauses that seemed to threaten the season in February. OU played just three games over 36 days between Feb. 2 and the tournament’s start on Thursday.

But that didn’t deter the Bobcats, who played with what Boals again called “uber, ultra, superior” confidence throughout the tournament. Ohio rolled out to 20-point leads in each of its three tournament victories, and trailed for all of 2:53 during the 210 minutes on on-court competition.

Ohio held double-digit leads for virtually every minute of the second half – barring a late Toledo run on Friday – during the tournament.

It was the seventh tournament championship for Ohio, which won titles in 2012 and 2010 under former coach John Groce – now at Akron. The championship comes in Boals’ second season. Ohio is now 4-0 in the MAC tournament under Boals, who also won a title as a player with the Bobcats in 1994.

“You can never take that away from that team. To this day, we have a text chain with 10 guys on that team every single day, we text and talk like we’re still in the locker room,” Boals said.

The coach talked about his desire to add to the banner collection in the Convo rafters upon his hiring, and again on Saturday. But he was just as happy to deliver to current team what his own college team enjoyed so much.

“This team is going to have a memory of a lifetime, they’re going to be bonded for life,” Boals said. “They’re going to be in each other’s weddings, doing reunions together. That’s what’s special about being part of a team and even moreso a championship team.”

“I wanted them to experience what I experienced.”

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