INDIANAPOLIS— Jason Preston and Ben Vander Plas met each other on the court. Creighton players and staff danced around in the periphery as Bluejays fans roared from the stands. Ohio fans shuffled meekly back to their cars as the Bobcats slinked into the locker room with their heads hanging low.
Preston and Vander Plas shared a similar moment just a week before in Cleveland after Ohio defeated Buffalo in the Mid-American Conference Championship. However, the feeling on Monday was grief, not joy. The pair have been inseparable since Preston came to Ohio. They needed a moment only best friends can share.
“Ben Vander Plas. That guy’s my brother for life,” Preston said. “He makes the game easier for me. It was so fun to play with him. Off the court, we’re always eating together and talking together. It kind of sucked being in a hotel with no roommate. He’s always my roommate. We’re always talking.”
Ohio’s season was over. A 25-game, 117-day journey ended on the floor of Hinkle Fieldhouse in a 72-58 loss to Creighton.
Preston choked up. His voice was shaky as he gave comments during his post-game Zoom conference. He had been giving interviews all week. An interview was last on his to-do list.
Ohio didn’t want its season to end in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but Preston knows all good things come to an end. Half of his journey was the happiness Ohio brought him.
“I'm gonna remember how fun it was,” Preston said. “It was just so fun. Some of these teams I don’t know if they really have fun doing it, you know? But every day was a blast. It really sucks that it’s all over, but it’s just so fun to be here.”
Before Monday, the Bobcats built a strong case to make it to Sweet 16. An upset of Virginia on Saturday pivoted all eyes toward the Bobcats. Creighton escaped the first round by a point and seemed ripe for elimination. If the Bobcats upset a 4-seed in the first round, what’s a 5-seed in the second round to them? Ohio had the glass slipper in hand and walked into Hinkle Fieldhouse with the confidence coach Jeff Boals had built into them.
But the clock struck midnight.
Ohio froze at the worst time. Shots didn’t connect. Bad passes resulted in 14 turnovers the Bluejays ate like candy. Fouls piled up and Creighton tacked on to a double-digit lead Ohio hounded to whittle away at. A 15-point deficit at the half was too much to overcome. The Bobcats were outgunned in a game they believed was theirs before tipoff.
For the first 12 minutes, it might’ve been. The Bobcats were going tit-for-tat with the Bluejays and led the game of with a 5-0 run to take the high ground early. Two consecutive dunks from Creighton forward Christian Bishop threw any hint of advantage out the window. Ohio’s accuracy floundered and the Bluejays ended the half on a 20-4 run.
Preston finished Monday just 1-for-10 from the field. His only connection was on a fast break layup eight minutes into the second half. Though he ended the night with nine rebounds and seven assists, he knew it wasn’t what Ohio needed. He shouldered the blame.
“(The Bluejays) were really determined in the first half,” Preston said. “You know, taking the ball out of my hands and ball screens. They trapped me hard. I missed a lot of makeable shots tonight. This is on me. I missed so many makeable shots.”
The Bobcats shot a season-low 31.8% from the field, killing any drive that might’ve brought them back into the game. Even when the Bluejays hit a dry patch and the lead was cut to nine, Ohio couldn’t capitalize.
Preston didn’t want to bow out in the second round. None of the Bobcats did. They could’ve taken Ohio to the Sweet 16 for the first time in nine years.
Some things aren’t meant to be.
Does it sting now? Absolutely, but Preston is looking forward.
“You know, when I look back on this, it's gonna be the memory of a lifetime,” Preston said. “This has been a dream of mine to make it here my whole life. I had one of my worst days of my career today, but I'll forever be thankful for this experience and the lessons I learned from all this.”