The night before they were set to play the biggest game of their careers, roommates Jason Preston and Ben Vander Plas laid in a Renaissance Cleveland Hotel room restless over the opportunity at stake.
In just a few hours, they would play in the Mid American Conference Tournament final. But instead of talking about the future, they discussed the past. Specifically when they first became teammates and how much their friendship had grown over three seasons playing together.
Vander Plas and Preston spent many restless nights in different hotels and motels imagining the feeling of hoisting a MAC Championship trophy over their heads. On Saturday night, after defeating No.2 seed Buffalo 84-69 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, their dream became a reality.
“We were talking about it last night. For J’s (Preston) visit to OU, I remember going to dinner with him,” Vander Plas said. “And to see where we are now, it’s just a crazy moment and I’m thankful to be where we are right now.”
Preston’s 22 points, seven assists and six rebounds and Vander Plas’ clutch shooting and stand out defense led Ohio to its first MAC title since 2012, and an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Together Vander Plas and Preston answered questions to the media, but as a team, Ohio destroyed the defending MAC Champion Bulls.
Heading into Saturday’s game, the Bobcats had to forget the 20-point blowout loss Buffalo handed them in Athens only two weeks ago. In that meeting, Ohio started the game flat and unsure. But in the two squads third and final matchup, Ohio attacked the Bulls from the tip.
Ohio only trailed for a few seconds the entire game. Despite their high-powered offense, the Bobcats knew they couldn’t afford a shootout with the Bulls. Ohio coach Jeff Boals stressed defense and that’s exactly what the Bobcats delivered.
Causing eight turnovers in less than 10 minutes, the Bobcats jumped out to a 22-10 lead. Boals knew then his team had what it took to own the moment.
“If you look at it, our offense has been really really good all year long, but our defense was our Achilles heel,” Boals said. “In order to win a championship it’s gonna be half court defense, half court offensive execution. Our guys have done a great job of carrying gameplans and film sessions into on-the-court time.”
Vander Plas, who was coming off a 26-point performance against Toledo in the semifinal, only sank one shot in the first half. Preston made sure to highlight that it was Vander Plas who led Ohio’s defensive effort.
“This guy right here, this guy, Ben Vander Plas deserves every ounce of the credit for what he does on the defensive end,” Preston said. “I don’t think enough guys give him enough credit for what he does on that end.”
Vander Plas’ activity on the help side was a major reason why guys like Buffalo’s Jayvon Graves (13 points, eight rebounds) and Jeenathan Williams (nine points, three rebounds) were held in check.
As Preston, Ben Roderick (20 points) and Dwight Wilson (17 points) started to heat up, the MAC Championship trophy felt like it gravitated toward Athens. Preston, however, read Ohio’s 41-21 halftime lead as a scoreless game.
“We knew we couldn’t let them get it to single digits,” Preston said. “We knew they’d make their run, obviously they’re a good team but we stayed poised and gutted it out.”
Preston was right. Buffalo started the second half with a 9-2 run. The spark that Ohio had in the first half began to flicker and the game’s leading scorer Ronaldo Segu (24 points) looked unguardable.
It was only a matter of time before Buffalo would figure out Ohio’s defense. With just under 15 minutes to go Ohio would have to rely on its offense and trade if it’d have any chance at holding Buffalo at bay.
And while Vander Plas serves as Ohio’s defensive anchor, when the Bobcats need a bucket they look to number zero.
Preston led the offense to another 40-plus point half, only turning over the ball over twice throughout the game. Preston struggled in both regular season games against the Bulls. They had no answer for him in the championship.
“We played him three times, he was bound to have one good game,” Williams said.
Unfortunately for Williams and the Bulls, Preston’s championship performance was the cap to a dominant week that culminated in a championship and tournament MVP honors. Over Ohio’s three games, Preston averaged 22.6 points, five rebounds and five assists per game.
“No disrespect to Marreon Jackson but I think J.P. is the best player in the league,” Boals said. “I think he’s gonna make a lot of money playing this game someday.”
Since Preston shocked the world with his performance against Illinois in the third game of the season, people have wondered and asked him about potentially playing in the NBA. Every time his answer was the same: he just wanted to focus on winning a MAC title with the Bobcats.
Now he’s done that. And better yet he’s done it with one of his best friends. As Preston and Vander Plas cut down the net, Vander Plas tied his piece around his championship ball cap. While Preston cut his piece, he thought about his mom that he lost to cancer.
“First thing I thought about was my mom,” Preston said. “She was a big part about why I’m doing this, a big part about why I got into basketball. She’s been on my mind heavy this whole year honestly.”
The Bobcats achieved their goal but now it’ll turn its head to Indianapolis. On Sunday, Ohio will sit together and await to hear who they’ll be facing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was an experience that Vander Plas’ father and sister got to have and now he will carry on the family legacy.
“My dad and my sister both played in the NCAA Tournament and for them it was their greatest basketball memory,” Vander Plas said. “So to do it with this team, I’m just so excited.”
When Jason Preston and Ben Vander Plas first met they had no idea they would accomplish the feats that they have this season. After a season of ups and downs they ended conference play on top.
But now comes a new challenge. Ohio didn’t make the tournament to participate, it came to win. The work isn’t done and the Bobcats are restless to get back to it.