Ben Vander Plas sat on the bench with an expressionless face and watched as his team tried countering every move Akron threw its way.
The reason why he wasn’t out on the court helping was because of two early fouls in the first half that forced coach Jeff Boals to sit one of his best and most experienced players.
They needed him when Ohio rallied to cut the Akron lead to two points, and they needed him when the Zips closed out the opening half on a 17-2 run.
Vander Plas, firmly seated on the bench, couldn’t make an impact the way he might have wanted – and in the way Ohio definitely needed.
“It’s frustrating at times, but at the same time, if I’m on the bench with two fouls, I gotta do whatever I can to help those guys,” Vander Plas said.
That first half on the bench featured conversations with Mason McMurray and Nate Springs, who attempted to fill the void that Vander Plas left. He talked to them about defensive positioning and where to attack offensively. He can coach them up as best as he can, but when it comes to it, they aren’t him.
His role in Ohio’s 88-86 loss to Akron on Saturday in The Convo was a role of two acts. The first act came in the first half, when he had to coach from the sideline and help out his replacements.
His second act, however, was perhaps one of the most impressive performances that Vander Plas has turned in all season.
He’s put up better numbers than he did on Saturday – 18 points, three rebounds and two assists – but the numbers today weren’t as important as the intangibles he brought in the second half.
In part of his versatile game where he can play the post, he can play at the top of the key and he can play from outside, he warrants the attention of more than just one defending depending on where was at on the court.
On the low post, he caught a pass from Jason Preston, and as he bumped and backed his body into the defender, two more swarmed on him in an attempt to stop him from scoring.
It didn’t work.
A quick feed and a flick of the wrist, Vander Plas hit a 3-pointer with 2:57 left to bring the deficit within five points.
Not only was his impact felt offensively, but when the Bobcats were on defense, very few Akron possessions ended with points if it came toward the redshirt sophomore.
“It feels good at times,” Vander Plas struggled to say when asked about the respect he warrants from opposing teams. “But at the same time, I know it’s my teammates that are helping me get those baskets and they’re the ones setting me up to keep doing those things.”
All season long, Ohio and Boals have preached consistency. If all else fails, at least Ohio can be consistent. For Vander Plas, he’s played with that mantra in his head. Whether it’s working the low block or finding an open Preston or Jordan Dartis.
But if you ask Boals — in this tough two-week stretch where the Bobcats have gone just 2-5 — the biggest growth in Vander Plas’ arsenal of skills has been his leadership.
“(He’s) being more vocal, taking ownership,” Boals said. “I think that’s another huge step in our growth process is those guys holding guys accountable and holding themselves accountable.”
Boals knows what he has with a player like Vander Plas. The first-year coach beamed when he said the 6-foot-8-inch forward is one of his best players. He knows that teams are going to double him and frustrate him to draw the fouls, just like Akron did Saturday and how Toledo did last Tuesday.
The close losses that have seemed to haunt the Bobcats (10-10, 2-5 Mid-American Conference) near closer and closer to an end, and it showed with a two-point loss to arguably the best team in the MAC.
If the Bobcats are serious about turning the corner, they’re going to need Vander Plas to keep playing the way he has been.
Whether he’s on the bench coaching his teammates up, or on the floor with the ball in his hands, he’s a difference maker, and one that Ohio needs.
“We have to continue to find ways to get him the ball,” Boals said.
If Ohio can do that, this recent skid might come to a halt.