To add a final twist of the knife, Ben Vander Plas caught a pass in transition at least five feet outside the top of the key. He unflinchingly fired a quick-pull 3-pointer.
It swished through perfectly, seemingly mocking the dire straits the opposition had faced over the previous eight minutes.
Vander Plas’ deep 3 was the most dramatic touch to the final 8:38 of the first half on Tuesday night. It was a stretch of basketball visiting Ball State would like to forget, and one Bobcats fans relished.
Ohio closed the first half with a 21-0 run, holding the Cardinals scoreless over the final 8:38, and proceeded to blow out Ball State 87-63 for its third straight win. The Bobcats (17-3, 8-1 MAC) completed their best 20-game start to a season since they joined the league in 1946-47.
The only better starts, if old records are to be believed, came in 1921-22 (Ohio started 18-3 en route to 19-4) and 1940-41 (18-3 to finish 18-4). Ohio can tie that mark on Thursday against visiting Eastern Michigan (8-12, 3-6 MAC). No Ohio team has ever started a season 19-3, or better.
“We keep saying one game, one possession at a time,” said senior Ohio forward Jason Carter, who bagged a game-high 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. “I mean it’s great, it’s amazing…but our goal wasn’t to be 17-3.”
Ball State (10-11, 5-5 MAC) had a three-game winning streak snapped. The Cardinals were playing their fourth game in eight days, and certainly looked that way in the latter stages of the first half when Ohio put the game away.
Tyler Cochran knotted the score 23-23 with a driving layup with 8:38 left in the half. Then Ball State failed to score again. Ohio scored the next 21 points, finished by Carter’s score inside, for a 44-23 lead at the break. The Cards missed their final 12 shots of the half.
“Our half-court defense is elite. We’re taking away what teams want to do. Our activity on the ball has been really good.”Ohio head coach Jeff Boals
The halftime break provided only a small respite for the Cards. OU opened the second half with a 10-1 run for a combined 31-1 run over nearly 14 minutes of game time. Ball State had a gap of 13:41 between field goal makes during which it missed 18 straight shots and had eight turnovers.
By the time the Cards ended that skid, thanks to Payton Sparks’ dunk, a 23-23 game had turned into a 54-24 rout.
“We’re really meshing as one right now defensively,” said Vander Plas, who joined Carter with 18 points and added seven rebounds. “We’re locked in.”
Mark Sears added 13 points, six rebounds, and six assists for the Bobcats, and then joined Carter and Vander Plas on the bench for essentially the final 12 minutes. Ohio, which just started a string of six games in 12 days, was glad for the chance to cut the workload for three important players. None of the trio played more than 27 minutes.
The game played out perfectly from that perspective for Boals. Well, almost perfectly.
“Maybe a 2-0 forfeit,” he said.
Sparks had 13 points and 11 rebounds for BSU, and proved to be problematic in the early going. But once Ohio took him out of the game, the rest of the Cardinal offense followed. Backup guard Jalen Windham had a team-high 17 points, all in the second half with the game out of reach, thanks to five 3-pointers.
The win was the 12th in the last 13 meetings for OU against Ball State. The Cardinals fell to 11-30 all-time in Athens. The game was also the latest blowout for the Bobcats, who have been sharp – except for a defensively-lagging effort for 20 minutes against Toledo.
In their last four wins, Ohio has amassed unsurmountable leads. There was the plus-35 lead at one point at Miami. OU led by as many as 28 at home against Northern Illinois, and then piled up a 23-point lead on the road at Buffalo. On Tuesday, the biggest lead reached 31 before Boals turned things over to the bench.
“We’re just locked in,” Carter said.
Ohio played again without junior wing Ben Roderick (foot). Boals said it’s possible he’ll be back in the lineup on Thursday. Sam Towns (6 points, 3 rebounds) started in his place for a second straight contest.
But that appears to be a small concern for Ohio, who remains a game back of Toledo for the top spot in the MAC standings. The rematch with the Rockets comes next Tuesday, but before that the ‘Cats have business with EMU (Thursday) and against visiting Western Michigan on Saturday.
“It’s awesome (to be 17-3), but our goals are to get closer as a team and better as a team every day,” Boals said. “So we go one day at a time.
“Don’t play it cool. Cool is gonna get you beat.”