Jason Preston sat in the tunnel leading onto the court in State Farm Center, shaking the hands of people congratulating him. Friday was one of the best days in his career at Ohio. Against No. 8 Illinois, Preston posted a career-high 31 points with eight assists and six rebounds. But the junior didn’t see any reason to celebrate.
Preston wasn’t even smiling. He was disappointed. Despite the efforts from both him and his teammates, Ohio lost a game it could have won. In the Bobcats’ 77-75 loss to Illinois, the final score came down to a free throw sank by Illinois guard Trent Frazier. It took the full weight of Illinois’ offense and a mix of fouls for Ohio to be taken down.
“I thought we battled; we fought, and we showed toughness,“ coach Jeff Boals said after the game. “We showed togetherness. We showed resiliency, and I’m very disappointed we didn't win that game. I thought we deserved to win the game and that we played well enough to win.”
Friday was a 40-minute tug-of-war that refused to lean either way. Neither team managed a double-digit lead, and there wasn’t a moment where the game looked out of Ohio’s hands. Aside from the late foul by Dwight Wilson that gave Illinois the win, Ohio was a credible threat.
And in the middle of it all, causing chaos for the Illini, was Preston. The junior was a buoy that kept the Bobcats’ heads above water for the 37 minutes he played Friday. His long 3-pointers and his aggressiveness in the paint pulled Ohio up when it began to slack.
“We know who (Preston) is and what he can do, and I think the nation saw today,“ Boals said. “He's a fierce competitor and was excited to play this game. He put us on his back and made some big time plays.”
Wherever Preston was, the energy followed. Every time he or his teammates scored, the bench erupted. They got so loud that they could be heard almost as well as the television announcers.
Preston loved the energy. It got him in the zone, and he wanted to keep his team’s spirit up. In a stadium without fans, the Bobcats have to rely on their own energy to stay in the game. Had the Illini had a stadium full of fans today instead of just the team and media, Ohio may have caved under the pressure.
If there was anything else to note from the junior’s knockout Friday performance, it was how well he handled the ball. Preston only sat out for three minutes the entire game, and in that span, he never turned the ball over once. Thirty-seven minutes and not a single turnover against the Illini.
Preston wants to be the go-to for his team. It doesn’t matter to him how many points he scores or what his shooting percentage is. He just does what his team needs, and he goes from there.
“I just have a belief in myself that I just want to do whatever it takes to win,“ Preston said. “It's not really about scoring a certain amount of points, rebounds or assists, just doing whatever my team needs.”
Ohio has a wide array of positives to take away from Friday. The offense shined in a game that was stacked against it, and Ohio held the No. 8 ranked team to a two-point victory that went down to the final second.
The Bobcats begin Mid-American Conference play in a just under a month. With teams like Akron and Ball State being among the first conference opponents in its schedule, Ohio will need to a strong leader on offense to pull it forward when the going gets tough.
Preston, in front of the entire country, just presented his case as to why he’s the man for the job.
“It’s just confidence going into MAC Play,“ Preston said. “If we know we can hang with with No. 8 Illinois, then we know we can go against anyone in the country.”