Looking for a trip to Cleveland

Ohio graduate transfer Sylvester Ogbonda, seen here earlier this season, and the Bobcats will face Central Michigan in a first-round game of the 2020 MAC Tournament on Monday, March 9, 2020 inside the Convocation Center. The winner advances to the quarterfinal round, in Cleveland, on Thursday, March 12. 

The third, and final stage, of Ohio’s season begins Monday night.

The Bobcats (16-15) open the 2020 Mid-American Conference Tournament with a 7 p.m. tip-off against Central Michigan (14-17) in the Convocation Center. The game, a matchup between the eight and nine seeds, will grant the winner a spot in the MAC Tournament quarterfinals on Thursday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

Ohio head coach Jeff Boals hopes the Bobcats are ready. He said OU didn’t handle the jump into conference play well at the start of January.

“We went from non-conference to league play, and we weren’t ready for that,” Boals said.

But that was two months ago. Now? Ohio was as good as anyone in the MAC over the last half of the season — 6-3 since the halfway point and 3-1 in the last two weeks — and the Bobcats believe they’re hitting their stride just in time.

“Everyone’s playing for a championship right now. It’s a one-bid league this year,” Boals added.

“So why not us?”

OU earned Monday’s home game with a dramatic 67-65 road win at Miami on Friday night. It was just the second road win since mid-November for the Bobcats. Both that fact, and the manner of the win — Ohio rallied from 10 down with less than three minutes to go — have the the ‘Cats chomping at the bit for the tournament opener.

“The last four minutes, it was now or never,” said Ohio sophomore point guard Jason Preston. “We had no other choice.”

It was a pretty fair approximation for the pressure every MAC team will face this week. While Akron — the regular-season champion — is regarded as a notch above everyone else, the feeling around the league is the 2020 tournament will be among the toughest in the league’s history to forecast.

Close games have dominated the docket over the last two months and Ohio is no exception. The Bobcats were 0-4 against the top two seeds, Akron and Bowling Green, but felt they should have won all four games.

Now OU will try to prove it was right in the biggest games of the season.

“We know we can compete with anybody. Had a lot of close games with everybody. There’s no more road games. It’s all neutral court after Monday,” Preston said.

“We know what’s at stake.”

Ohio will be desperate to return to Cleveland, where the quarterfinals through the championship will be held. The Bobcats failed in each of the last two years, thanks for first-round losses on the road, to reach the quarterfinal round.

But this time Ohio is at home for the first round, for the first time since 2014, and posted a 11-5 home record this season including a 6-3 mark against the MAC.

And Monday’s opponent, Central Michigan, has been a dreadful road team all season. The Chippewas were just 2-13 on the road in 2019-20, with a 2-7 record in MAC road games.

CMU stumbled to the finish, but did manage to break a nine-game losing skid with a 85-68 win over Western Michigan on Friday.

Ohio won the first meeting this season, also in the Convo, by a 77-69 count back on Feb. 18. The Chips led at the half, 33-27, but Ohio piled up 50 points in the second half to break through for the win.

Redshirt senior guard Jordan Dartis had 27 points and seven 3-pointers in the victory, and sophomore forward Ben Vander Plas added 17 points and seven rebounds for Ohio. But both may be less than full strength on Monday night.

Dartis limped through Friday’s win with a sore foot, and Vander Plas (ankle) sat out the game entirely. Boals was hopeful, but not positive, both would play against CMU.

“That’s March. Everyone is bumped, bruised,” Boals said.

CMU forwards Kevin McKay (23 points, 12 rebounds) and Rob Montgomery (14 and 11) pounded OU in the paint in the first meeting. Senior forward David DiLeo, the CMU and MAC career leader with 331 3-pointers, was held to just nine points and one 3 in the first meeting.

The Chips will have four seniors in the starting lineup, and will be playing with a ton of desperation themselves.

“It’ll be a tough game but thankfully it’s at home,” Boals said.

Tournament tidbits — Ohio is 41-32 all-time in the MAC Tournament, and 10-5 in the first round but has dropped two straight in the opening round. …CMU is just 1-3 against Ohio in the Tournament, and is 0-2 all-time as the No. 9 seed. …The last time the two teams met in the postseason, 2006, Ohio won 82-53 in the Convo. CMU’s last tourney win over OU came in 2002. …For the season, CMU finished with 120 more free throws than the opposition. Ohio finished with 68 fewer free throws than its opponent.

2020 MAC Men’s Basketball Tournament

First Round, Monday, March 9 (higher seed campus sites)

Game 1: No. 9 Central Michigan (14-17) at No. 8 Ohio (16-15), 7 p.m. (ESPN+)

Game 2: No. 12 Miami (12-19) at No. 5 Buffalo (20-11), 7:30 p.m. (ESPN+

Game 3: No. 10 Western Michigan (13-18) at No. 7 Toledo (16-15), 7 p.m. (ESPN+)

Game 4: No. 11 Eastern Michigan (16-15) at No. 6 Kent State (19-12), 7 p.m. (ESPN+)

Quarterfinals, Thursday, March 12 (Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse)

Game 5: No. 1 Akron (24-7) vs. Game 1 winner, 12 p.m. (ESPN+)

Game 6: No. 4 Northern Illinois (18-13) vs. Game 2 winner, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN +)

Game 7: No. 2 Bowling Green (21-10) vs. Game 3 winner, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN +)

Game 8: No. 3 Ball State (18-13) vs. Game 4 winner, 9 p.m. (ESPN+)

Semifinals, Friday, March 13 (Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse)

Game 9: Game 5 winner vs Game 6 winner, 7 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Game 10: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 9:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Championship, Saturday, March 14 (Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse)

Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN 2)

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

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