The Bobcats simply couldn’t conjure up enough defense, or made shots, as their magical 2021 finish came to an abrupt stop.
No. 5 seed Creighton closed the first-half with a fury, and then squashed any hopes of a comeback from No. 13 Ohio in the second half, and rolled to a 72-58 victory on Monday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in a second-round game of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
Ohio’s season ended in disappointing fashion as the Bobcats were held to a season-low 58 points. Junior guard Jason Preston, a rising star profiled by nearly every outlet covering the tournament in the last week, had his worst game of the season; Preston finished with a season-low four points on 1 of 10 shooting.
“This is on me,” Preston said afterward. “I missed so many makeable shots.
“One of the worst games of my career.”
Ohio (17-8) had a bad night all the way around as Creighton (22-8) dictated the terms on both ends of the floor. The Bobcats shot just 31.8 percent overall and 23.3 percent from 3-point range (7 of 30).
“We just came up short today. We didn’t have it,” Ohio head coach Jeff Boals said. “A lot of it was them, and some of it was us.”
Marcus Zegarowski clearly won his one-on-one duel with Preston with a game-high 20 points as the Bluejays’ point guard led five players in double figures.
Springy-legged forward Christian Bishop added 12 points (with five dunks) and 15 rebounds. Damien Jefferson (15 points), Denzel Mahoney (11) and Mitch Ballock (10) all also hit double figures for Creighton, which advanced to the Sweet 16 round for the first time since 1974.
The Blue Jays will face the West Region’s No. 1 seed Gonzaga, which kept its perfect season intact with an 87-71 win over No. 8 Oklahoma on Monday.
Ben Vander Plas added nine points and 10 rebounds for Ohio, but shot just 3 of 12 from the field. Preston and Vander Plas, instrumental all season to the Bobcats’ hopes, combined for 10 of the team’s 14 turnovers. Creighton turned the takeaways into 18 points.
Preston, who notched nine rebounds and seven assists, hit his only field goal with less than 13 minutes remained, and Ohio trailing 52-33. The standout had just one point in the first half as Ohio trailed by 15 after the first half.
“Jason Preston has gotten us this far. He’s a special player. One of the best players that ever played at Ohio University,” Boals said. “I know he didn’t play very well tonight, but he’s the reason we’re here.”
Dwight Wilson III led Ohio with 12 points and nine rebounds, and broke the 1,000-point plateau for his career in the process. Lunden McDay scored 11 points and Ben Roderick added 10, but the sophomore wings combined to shoot 8 of 26 from the field.
Creighton relentlessly trapped Ohio’s high ball-screen approach, and pushed the Bobcats further out on the offensive end than was comfortable. And when an open jumper presented itself, the shot too often failed to find the bottom of the net.
The Bobcats were out of it at the half, as Creighton used a 20-4 run over the last 7:17 to raise a 39-24 lead at the break.
The Bobcats led 5-0, and then 11-6 after Wilson flipped in a hook shot from the right block. The Bluejays responded with a 7-0 burst to take the lead before Roderick traded back-to-back 3-pointers with Creighton’s Shereef Mitcheell and Mahoney as the game settled into a 19-19 tie.
Preston gave Ohio its last lead, at 20-19, with a made free throw but Bishop ignited the half-ending run with a one-handed slam off an alley oop and the Bluejays were off and running.
Vander Plas scored on a put-back bucket with 3:12 left to cut the deficit to 31-24, but Creighton scored the final eight points – with two 3s from Zegarowski – for the huge margin at the break.
“Once we get stops and get out in transition, we’re tough to guard,” Zegarowski said. “That’s what we have to do moving forward.”
Creighton led by 21, at 52-31, early in the second half. The Bobcats hung around, and eventually cut it to single digits, 65-56, with 2:26 left after Mark Sears hit a 3-pointer and added a free throw to cap an 8-0 run.
But Zegarowski converted a soft turnaround jumper in the lane on the next trip, and OU followed with four more empty possessions as the game – and the March magic – slipped away.
Boals said the message afterward was simple – he was thankful. Ohio, 7-6 at one point, won 10 of their final 12 games and did so while enduring a pair of COVID-19 stops that totaled 33 days over February and March.
Boals, a former Ohio player and alum, heard from Bobcat backers across the country over the last two weeks as OU stampeded through the MAC Tournament and then sprung a first-round upset over defending national champion Virginia.
“You hate to see something like this end the way it ended, but that does not take away from anything that they’ve done,” the coach said. “I told them afterwards as an alumnus, as a former player, thank you, and that I loved them. This team will be bonded for life.
“It hurts right now, but it’s going to be a great memory someday.”
Preston echoed the sentiments. He’ll have to decide in the next few weeks if he wants to pursue a pro career immediately, or return to Ohio. He’ll weight his options and make a choice.
Whatever it is, it’ll be hard to top 2020-21 –- despite (or maybe because?) of the hardships endured along the way.
“I’ll remember how fun it was,” Preston said.
“Some of these teams, they win, and I don’t know if they really have fun doing it, but every day was a blast. It really sucks that it’s all over, but it was just so fun to be here.”