CLEVELAND — The Ohio Bobcats faced a lot of question marks going into the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
The Bobcats hadn’t played in 12 days, and only played three games since Feb. 2 due to a pair of COVID-19 related pauses.
By the time the tournament was over, there were no more questions left to be answered. The Bobcats proved by far and away to be the best team in the field.
No. 5 seed Ohio won a MAC Tournament championship for the first time since 2012, defeating No. 2 Buffalo 84-69 on Saturday inside Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Despite all the obstacles to the season, the Bobcats will advance to the NCAA Tournament. It’s the seventh league tournament title in program history.
“It was an unbelievable performance by our guys,” head coach Jeff Boals said. “I’m a proud coach and I know that we made a lot of people in Bobcat Nation happy. The most proud I am of this group is their character. What they’ve been able to go through this last month and a half to get to this point.”
Sophomore guard Jason Preston is the tournament’s MVP after another outstanding outing. He led Ohio with 22 points on 9 of 16 shooting, adding six rebounds, seven assists and five steals.
“It’s so surreal,” Preston said. “We’ve had this goal and these last couple week’s. We’ve really locked in. We really wanted it. It was nice to win the first game and it was nice to win the next game, but we knew we still had a lot of work to do. I’m so grateful to be here right now.”
The Bobcats learned their tournament destination on Sunday. They earned a No. 13 seed, and will face No. 4 Virginia (18-6). The game will take place on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at Indiana University’s Assembly Hall. It will air on TruTV.
The Cavaliers are the defending champions of the event from 2019, with the 2020 tournament being canceled.
Virginia had to forfeit its spot in the ACC Tournament last week after a positive COVID-19 test, but is still a part of the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.
Ohio gets a shot at the defending national champions after essentially leading throughout the entire tournament, beating three higher-seeded teams in three consecutive days.
The Bobcats opened the tournament with an 85-63 win over No. 4 Kent State on Thursday. They followed that up by bouncing No. 1 seed Toledo 87-80 on Friday before beating No. 2 Buffalo on Saturday.
The Bulls had won four of the previous five MAC Tournaments, and won in Athens 86-66 on Feb. 27, but never led after the opening minutes in Saturday’s championship game.
Ben Roderick had a strong shooting night from the field for Ohio, scoring 20 points while making 6 of 9 field goal attempts. He made both of his 3-pointers and all six of his free throw attempts.
Dwight Wilson added 17 points and seven rebounds for Ohio on 8 of 14 shooting. Ben Vander Plas had nine points, five assists, five rebounds and two steals while Mark Sears came off the bench to score eight points.
Ohio improves to 16-7, while Buffalo falls to 16-8.
The Bulls led 5-2 in the early stages of the game, but the Bobcats scored 16 points in a row and never really looked back.
Ohio took the lead for good at 6-5 after Roderick’s fastbreak layup. The lead grew to 18-5 after consecutive 3-pointers from Preston and Vander Plas with 12:31 left in the opening half.
The Bobcats continued to build the advantage, going ahead 34-15 after two Roderick free throws with 3:32 left in the half.
The last time Ohio saw the Bulls, the Bobcats trailed by 20 points at halftime. The tables completely turned in the rematch, as Ohio led 41-21 at halftime thanks to Preston’s 3-pointer.
Ohio still led 43-23 in the second half after Wilson scored in the paint before Buffalo made a run.
The Bulls got to within 52-42 with 10:28 to play after Ronaldo Segu’s 3-pointer.
Ohio wasn’t rattled, and answered with Vander Plas’ 3-pointer, Wilson’s three-point play and another Vander Plas 3 for a 61-42 lead with 7:59 remaining.
The MAC Tournament title was essentially in the books at that point, as the Bobcats countered the Bulls’ run with one of their own.
Buffalo never got closer than 12 points the rest of the way.
Roderick’s fast-break dunk pushed the Ohio lead to 79-62 with 1:41 to play.
Segu led Buffalo with 24 points, but was just 8 of 22 from the floor. Josh Mballa added 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Jayvon Graves had 13 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Jeenathan Williams added nine points, while LaQuill Hardnett had seven points.
Ohio 87, Toledo 80
Ohio advanced to the championship game when it knocked out top-seed Toledo 87-80 during Friday’s semifinal round.
Ohio started strong, leading 43-31 at halftime.
Preston and Vander Plas led the Bobcats to the upset win.
Preston scored 27 points on 11 of 19 shooting, adding five rebounds, five assists and two steals. He made five 3-pointers.
Vander Plas had his best night of the tournament with 26 points on 11 of 18 shooting, including three 3-pointers. He had eight rebounds and seven assists.
Wilson added 12 points and 12 rebounds, while Roderick had 10 points and seven rebounds. McDay added eight points.
Marreon Jackson had 29 points for the Rockets on 11 of 19 shooting, while Setric Millner had 26 points and nine rebounds.
Ohio never trailed and the only tie came at 3-3. The Bobcats used a 7-0 run to lead 29-19 with 6:45 to play in the first half thanks to Wilson’s layup.
The Bobcats’ largest lead was 18 points, going ahead 68-50 with 8:33 left after Vander Plas’ layup.