AKRON – Jeff Boals slugged his way down the long hallway that connects the court to the visiting locker room within the confines of James A. Rhodes Arena.
The first-year coach was moments removed from watching three players on his team hit the floor, then need their athletic trainer to tend to them – no matter the severity of the bump, bruise, twisted ankle or cramp.
“We were banged up the whole game,” Boals said following the Bobcats’ 74-67 loss to Akron on Tuesday night. “Our guys battled, we gave (Akron) everything we had. They were just gassed.”
The Bobcats central core of players all sustained some injury. Lunden McDay has been recovering from a sprained ankle, and then he dealt with cramps down the stretch against the Zips. Sylvester Ogbonda rolled his ankle in the second half. And Jordan Dartis didn’t even dress because of an injury that occurred during practice.
Perhaps their biggest blow happened with 11:53 left in the second half when Ben Vander Plas fell and clutched his left ankle. Ohio was clinging to an 11-point lead, but when its stretch big-man went down, so did the dominance it had displayed for over half the game.
With Vander Plas on the bench, the Bobcats got into an offensive funk that they hadn’t experienced all game. Five straight possessions with no points combat that with Akron’s ability to force Ohio to shoot contested shots, and it proved that the experience and lack of depth was too much.
“He’s a big part of what we do,” Boals said of Vander Plas. “The big thing coming in was we had to give ourselves a chance to win the game.”
And for the first 15 minutes of the game, that’s exactly what Ohio did.
Ogbonda from the top of the key hit a soft floater, and on the next possession he hit a 3-pointer with his feet barely set behind the line. Shots from McDay, Vander Plas, Ben Roderick and, of course, Jason Preston shook away free from an early back-and-forth to instead a 13-1 run and a 13-point halftime lead.
With the momentum on its side heading into the second half, the Zips made the adjustments that Boals knew were coming.
They simply just didn’t have answers for them.
“I think their pressure bothered us,” Boals said. “We tried to set ball screens for Jason Preston, and they did a good job of crowding them. In the second half, we weren’t getting the movement that we needed.”
Akron’s pressure stemmed from a three-man press whenever Ohio inbounded the ball. It forced Preston to make uncomfortable passes and it put a cog into the efficiency Ohio had in the first half.
The results in the press were evident as the Bobcats’ shooting went from shooting 68% from the field and 50% from 3-point range to 45% and 35% at the end of the game, respectively.
“We didn’t really make shots,” Preston said. “I missed a bunch of layups. We missed the 3s we made in the first half. We missed a lot more shots in this game.”
Surely the Bobcats (15-15, 7-10 Mid-American Conference) would’ve wanted the upset over the Zips. If they had won tonight, they would’ve secured a home game in the first round of the MAC Tournament, which begins on March 9.
If it had won Tuesday, the ideas of resting Preston, who’s played six straight 40-minute games, could’ve been brought to fruition. It could’ve done a multitude of things, but now it’s forced to give the season finale a sense of purpose it would’ve much rather not have.
“It is what it is. We can only move forward,” Preston said. “It’s money time now, there’s no time for days off.”
With the loss, it will have to move forward if it wants to secure a home game. Ohio is 11-5 at home, and when it last hosted a home tournament game, it was a game away from playing for a MAC Championship.
A short turnaround since the game is on Friday, with the Bobcats’ banged up and bruised, they’re going to have to find the right formula of rest and preparation ahead of what now is their biggest game of the season.