In a rematch turned mismatch, the Bobcats made the most of their only regular-season meeting against a conference rival on national television Friday night.
Powered by a back-on-track Mark Sears, and a defense that gave up nothing easy, Ohio turned in a dominating performance in dismantling host Buffalo 74-53 inside Alumni Arena. The Bobcats improved to 16-3 and 7-1 in the Mid-American Conference, and did so in style; Ohio’s 21-point margin of victory was its largest at the University at Buffalo since the Bulls joined the MAC 25 years ago (1998).
“From the start, we were just locked in,” said Ohio coach Jeff Boals, who watched his team knock off Buffalo last season in the championship game of the 2021 MAC Tournament for the league’s one and only spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Friday’s meeting was a chance at payback for the Bulls (10-8, 4-4), the preseason pick to win the MAC this season. Instead, UB fell out of contention early and never trailed by less than 11 over the final 33 minutes.
And that elusive payback for the Bulls may not come any time soon. The game was the only scheduled meeting of the regular season between the two teams; The MAC has dumped the divisional set up for the 12-team league, and OU-UB won’t have a home-and-home series for the first time since 1999.
“This was a really meaningful one,” said Ohio senior forward Ben Vander Plas, referencing the potential head-to-head tiebreaker that came with the victory.
Just four years ago, the Bobcats lost by 47 in this same venue. Then, Jason Carter had 16 meaningless points in a 114-67 blowout loss. Now? In 2022? Carter set the tone with early postups and finished with 16 points and nine rebounds in a win on the other side of the spectrum.
“It’s just great to see how far we’ve come,” Vander Plas said.
Ohio won its second in a row and – barring a disastrous first half a week ago in a home loss to Toledo – looks like a team capable of challenging for a league title, in the regular season or at the conclusion of a three-day tournament in Cleveland.
There are two reasons for that. The first is the Bobcats penchant for defense. At Buffalo, that included vehement help defense, collapsing to bracket drivers, rotating to open shooters, and maintaining floor balance by rotating back to prevent the Bulls from striking quickly in the open floor.
The Bulls shot just 38.2% overall and a dreadful 5/21 from 3-point range. Buffalo entered averaging north of 80 points per game but was held to a season-low 53 points and had just nine assists against 16 turnovers. UB’s potent fast-break game and offensive-rebound production were limited to just eight points apiece.
The Bulls have not been held below 60 points since a 78-58 loss to Texas Tech in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
“Our team defense was just so good,” said Vander Plas, who backed Carter’s production inside with 12 points and 11 rebounds. “We got a lot of key stops.
“Our guys did a great job of sticking together.”
The other primary reason Ohio hung a 21-point home loss on the Bulls was superlative-laden sophomore point guard Sears. He collected his ninth-game of the year of more than 20 points with a game-high 27 on just 18 shots. Sears added six rebounds, four assists, and three steals.
And while Carter and Vander Plas drove the offensive production early, it was Sears that ended matters and pushed the game into blowout mode. Ohio’s last deficit was 4-2, but UB was still very much in the game with just a 19-14 deficit with 7:44 left in the opening half.
Ohio slammed the door shut with an 18-5 to close out the first 20 minutes. Sears, with one single free throw in the game’s first 16 minutes, added eight points in the final 3:19 of the half.. Sears’ off–balance leaner with a minute left made it 33-18. Carter’s offensive rebound and score with 11 seconds left seemed to give OU more momentum, then Sears ripped away a steal and scored on full-court rush and a slick euro-step for a bucket two ticks before the halftime buzzer.
Another half remained, but the game was decided then.
Ohio quickly pushed the lead up to as much as 23 in the second half, with Sears scoring 14 straight during one stretch.
“Mark just took off in the second half,” Vander Plas said. “He was handing out buckets left and right.”
The Bulls got no closer than 16 points the rest of the way.
The win was all the more impressive as Ohio played without starting wing Ben Roderick, who sat out with a foot injury. Boals said the junior is “day to day” and Roderick was there and took part in the day’s shootaround. The Bobcats got by thanks to 11 points from Miles Brown, a full 40-minute workload from Sears, and spot-start duty from Sam Towns.
Ohio now heads into a stretch of six games over the next two weeks, thanks to a pair of rescheduled games that were postponed earlier this season to COVID concerns. The run begins Tuesday with Ball State (9-10, 4-4) in the first of three straight home games over five days.
“We’re the real deal, especially when we’re locked in,” Sears said.