Shortly after Ohio suffered a loss at Ball State earlier this month, players and coaches filed onto the team bus and sat silently.
Frustration was evident after the 11-point defeat. It was the Bobcats’ fourth consecutive loss, sinking them into last place in the Mid-American Conference East Division. Some players quietly discussed the game while others leaned back in their seats and waited to begin the three-and-a-half hour ride home.
Forty-five minutes into the trip, coach Jeff Boals stood up from his seat with a question for his team.
“You like ice cream?” said Boals, who received puzzled looks from the confused players just wanting to arrive back in Athens. The team wasn’t in the mood for jokes. What was Boals up to?
“We’re going to Dairy Queen,” he said.
The team made a quick stop off Interstate 70 near Richmond, Indiana, at a small Dairy Queen inside a gas station. Boals felt the tension from his team, and he needed to lighten the mood before Ohio began its idle week.
Ice cream was the solution, and it worked.
“You have to stay positive and keep having fun playing the game,” redshirt sophomore Ben Vander Plas said. “I think (Dairy Queen) was the first step.”
Since the ice cream stop, Ohio has won back-to-back games for the first time since nonconference play in early December. Multiple players have spoken on how their practices have contained more energy and a new level of fun.
It’s showing in the Bobcats’ performance.
In Tuesday’s 12-point win over Western Michigan, sophomore guard Jason Preston made the play of the season after making a one-handed put-back dunk, which appeared as the No. 3 play on SportsCenter’s Top Ten Plays segment later that night.
Redshirt senior Jordan Dartis, who has been more cautious with his body after missing last season with two hip surgeries, was diving around the court for loose balls. Before the game, he sent the Bobcats into a frenzy when he threw down a rare dunk during warmups.
After beginning conference play with a 2-7 record — both wins came against Eastern Michigan, who began the MAC season 0-7 — the Bobcats have appeared to turn a corner.
“We’re getting better,” Boals said after the latest win. “That’s what you want to do this time of year. Our guys have a lot of energy right now. I was out of breath giving my pregame talk.”
The last two games have offered a promising glimpse of what the future could hold for Ohio. The Bobcats have played smart, consistent basketball despite a roster featuring seven freshmen and just three upperclassmen. Ohio’s young core has seen a slight uptick in minutes, too. Preston has emerged as a reliable leader in only his second year with the program.
Preston approached Boals before each of the last two wins with a suggestion to begin the game by pressing on defense. Boals has implemented the plan each time, and the aggressive start has helped Ohio play some of its best basketball of the season.
Last Saturday against Miami, the Bobcats prevented the RedHawks from converting on 24 consecutive field goal attempts in the first half and beat their rival by their biggest margin in recent memory.
In their first meeting with Western Michigan on Jan. 4, the Bobcats never found their rhythm in the first half and trailed 33-24. With the press defense Tuesday, Ohio limited Western Michigan’s top offensive weapons and went into halftime with a 31-26 lead.
The Bobcats are far from a finished product that can compete with every MAC team, but they’re showing true signs of improvement.
“Everybody’s been sticking together,” Vander Plas said. “We just keep getting extra work in, and good things are happening. We’re gonna keep that up and see where it takes us.”
Yes, it’s only two wins. And the Bobcats will need to find more ways to win in their final seven games. The upcoming stretch includes matchups against Bowling Green, Akron, Central Michigan and Kent State, all opponents that have a shot to finish atop their respective divisions.
But the young roster has begun to finally click, and when Boals was asked what provided the kickstart for Ohio’s recent success, he didn’t point to a tweak in strategy or a lineup shuffle.
He thought about the ice cream stop.
“My job as a head coach is to get the energy level and mood to change,” Boals said. “I decided we needed to go to Dairy Queen.”