One to remember

Ohio Bobcats (from left) Connor Murrell, Nate Springs, Mason McMurray and John Tenerowicz react after a dunk from Jason Preston during the Bobcats’ 73-61 win in the Convo on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.

For the uninitiated, Jason Preston served up a reminder that he’s more than deft at passing and high angle shots off the glass.

And the Bobcats are hoping they’re starting to remind the Mid-American Conference they have plenty of bite left as well.

Preston’s one-handed, follow-up dunk early in the second-half ignited the Ohio bench, head coach Jeff Boals and the entire Convo, and proved to be the lit fuse for OU’s 73-61 win over Western Michigan on Tuesday night.

“I love a good dunk. I never had a dunk in my career in college so I love a really good dunk,” said Boals, who saw his team win back-to-back games for the first time in conference play this season.

“And that was a great dunk.”

And it was the latest in a series of impactful plays put forth by Preston, the 6-4 sophomore who has enjoyed a breakthrough season. With a shock of curly, reddish hair, uncanny vision and a knack for making the awkward look sublime, Preston again hitched Ohio on his shoulders.

Preston finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season, and flirted with a second straight triple-double as he ended with seven assists. He had game highs in all three categories, and scored 15 points in the second half for the Bobcats (12-12, 4-7 MAC).

“It starts on defense,” said Preston, who has urged OU to play more full-court pressure during Ohio’s two-game winning streak. “We’re playing a lot harder and together.

“I don’t know how many shot clock violations or kills they had in the first half, but our ball pressure and togetherness, I think it was great.”

Western Michigan (11-13, 4-7 MAC) won the first meeting between the two teams this season with a bludgeoning approach built on post-touches, fast-breaks and free throws. But the Bobcats flipped the script with ball pressure.

Guards dug down into the lane. Forwards doubled every Bronco post touch. And it was Ohio, not WMU, that forced 18 turnovers.

Keyed by a change in approach, and a rotation deeper on guards now with junior Connor Murrell and freshmen Ben Roderick and Miles Brown are all healthy, the Bobcats have leaned into full-court pressure and small-ball lineups.

It’s worked. Ohio has allowed just 58.8 points per game over the last four games and all four opponents scored 65 or less. Just one of OU’s first seven conference foes scored less than 68.

“We’ve been really getting after it and it’s showing in games. That’s starting to become who we are, trying to stop people,” said sophomore forward Ben Vander Plas.

WMU’s Michael Flowers had 21 points to lead the Broncos, but just seven came in the second half with five in the final 90 seconds after the game had been decided. Forwards Brandon Johnson and Titus Wright had eight points apiece, but the same duo piled up 32 in the first matchup.

“I thought our ball pressure was phenomenal. I thought our press killed the clock. Our post double teams took them out of what they did in game 1,” Boals said. “Our guys carried out the game plan to a T.”

Vander Plas excelled when Ohio went small — he slotted in as the center — and he finished with 19 points and nine rebounds. Redshirt senior guard Jordan Dartis added 15 points and notched a career-high with six steals.

Ohio didn’t shoot well, just 42.4 percent overall and only 5 of 21 from 3, but it still authored a definitive win in a critical game all the same. The win moved Ohio into a tie for ninth place in the overall conference standings; a loss would have left OU 2-plus games behind the Broncos and in 11th overall.

“We’re getting better. That’s what you want to do this time of year,” Boals said.

Ohio led at the half, 31-26, after finding some offensive rhythm and flow in the middle of the first half.

WMU led 16-9 with just 7:46 left in the half after Flowers knocked in a jumper from the lane. But Ohio, just 4 of 18 from the field to that point, caught fire.

Dartis started it with a corner 3 from the left side, then made it two in a row with catch, pump-fake, side-dribble and 3 from the left side. Preston scored in transition off a steal and the 8-0 run gave Ohio a 17-16 lead in just 66 seconds.

The Bobcats then went with a small-ball lineup over the final six minutes to build on the lead. Vander Plas scored 10 straight Ohio points over a four-minute slice and Preston’s post-up bucket at the buzzer gave OU a five-point lead.

“They can’t stop him down there. He’s too good, too strong,” Preston said.

Preston and Vander Plas scored every single one of Ohio’s first 15 points in the second half. Preston’s dramatic dunk started a string of nine streak sandwiched between a trio of layups from Vander Plas.

But OU didn’t gain real separation until the final seven minutes. Preston had Ohio’s last two field goals, and his baseline runner made it 58-50 with 4:12 left.

From there, the Bobcats hit 15 of 16 free throws in the final four minutes.

It was a clean finish from a team still learning what it’s capable of. The Bobcats have seven games left to make a run at finishing as high as they can in the conference standings. And for the first time since the calendar flipped, they starting to see what might be possible.

“Every team in this league has won and lost close games. We’ve got a lot of teams ahead of us that we still have to play,” Boals said.

“Come in with a one-game mentality like we have been and control what we can control.”

Up next: The Bobcats finally get to face Kent State (16-8, 6-5 MAC) on Saturday. Ohio travels to Kent for a 1 p.m. start at the M.A.C. Center against the Golden Flashes; it will be the first meeting of the season between the MAC East Rivals. KSU will be fresh after taking its midweek bye slot on Tuesday night. OU will be gunning for a third-straight conference win for the first time since 2017.

Ohio 73, Western Michigan 61

Western Mich. 26 35 — 61

Ohio 31 42 — 73

WESTERN MICHIGAN 61 (11-13, 4-7 MAC)

Brandon Johnson 3 2-2 8, Titus Wright 2 4-5 8, B.Artis White 1 0-0 3, Michael Flowers 7 3-4 21, Jason Whitens 2 0-0 4, Rafael Cruz Jr. 4 0-0 10, Chase Barrs 0 0-0 0, Jared Printy 2 0-0 5, Adrian Martin 0 0-0 0, Patrick Emilien 1 0-0 2, Luke Toliver 0 0-0 0, Adida Ikongshul 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 22 9-11 61; 3-point goals — 8-18 (Flowers 4-8, Cruz 2-4, White 1-2, Printy 1-2, Johnson 0-1, Wright 0-1).

OHIO 73 (12-12, 4-7 MAC)

Ben Vander Plas 8 3-7 19, Sylvester Ogbonda 2 0-0 4, Jason Preston 9 2-3 21, Lunden McDay 0 0-0 0, Jordan Dartis 3 6-6 15, Ben Roderick 2 3-3 8, Nolan Foster 0 0-0 0, Connor Murrell 0 2-2 2, Miles Brown 1 2-3 4; TOTALS 25 18-24 73; 3-point goals — 5-21 (Dartis 3-5, Preston 1-3, Roderick 1-4, Ogbonda 0-1, McDay 0-1, Murrell 0-1, Brown 0-1, Vander Plas 0-5).

TEAM STATISTICS/INDIVIDUAL LEADERS

Field goals — Western Michigan 22-54 (.407), 3-point goals 8-18 (.444); Ohio 25-59 (.424), 3-point goals 5-21 (.238); Free throws — WMU 9-11 (.818), Ohio 18-24 (.750); Rebounds — WMU 38/7 offensive (Wright 7); Ohio 35/8 offensive (Preston 11); Assists — WMU 7 (White 4), Ohio 12 (Preston 7); Steals — WMU 4, Ohio 10 (Dartis 6); Blocks — WMU 3, Ohio 2; Turnovers — WMU 18, Ohio 10; Personal fouls — WMU 23, Ohio 15; Attendance — 4,372; Technical fouls — None.

Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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