CLEVELAND — Jason Preston scored 22 points and Ohio dominated from the start to win its first Mid-American Conference Tournament championship since 2012, an 84-69 victory on Saturday night over Buffalo, which was trying for a record third straight title.
The Bobcats (16-7) are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, when they shocked Michigan on their way to the Sweet 16. They’ll receive the league’s automatic bid when the seedings are announced Sunday night.
Ben Roderick added 20 points and Dwight Wilson III 17 for No. 5 seed Ohio, which built a 20-point halftime lead, stopped a Buffalo comeback and won its seventh MAC title.
In the final minute, Ohio’s bench players and fans chanted, “O-U, Oh, yeah!” before the Bobcats bounced around the floor in celebration.
Ronaldo Segu scored 24 to lead the Bulls (16-8) and Josh Mballa had 16 and 11 rebounds.
Ohio’s season was filled with interruptions due to COVID-19 — the Bobcats had seven games either postponed or canceled — will go deeper into March. A year ago, they were on the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor warming up for their quarterfinal game when the tournament was cancelled.
In a strange way, the pandemic may have helped the Bobcats, who knocked off top-seeded Toledo in the semifinals.
After they lost to Buffalo by 20 on Feb. 27, they didn’t play again until coming to Cleveland this week because their final two regular-season games were called off. The 12-day break meant their legs were fresher than the other teams — and they also had Preston.
The junior guard did a little of everything, adding seven assists, six rebounds, and five steals. He was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
The second-seeded Bulls were appearing in their fifth MAC final since 2015, and were technically the defending champions after winning the tourney in 2019. But Buffalo started poorly, never found its rhythm and may have been feeling the effects of going to overtime with Akron on Friday.
Buffalo, which had won 13 of its previous 14 games in Cleveland, got within 52-42 midway through the second half. But just when it looked like things were getting interesting, Preston put Ohio back in control.
He fed Ben Vander Plas for a 3-pointer and squeezed a pass inside to Wilson, who was fouled and completed the three-point play. Preston then drove and whipped a pass back to the top of the key for Vander Plas, who buried a long 3 and posed to admire his work.
A strong start helped the Bobcats blow out Kent State in the quarterfinals, and another one Friday set the stage for their upset of Toledo. Ohio took advantage of Buffalo’s sloppiness with the ball and reeled off 16 straight points in the first 10 minutes.
The burst only raised OU’s confidence level and had the players in their bench area waving towels with every made basket and defensive stop.
Buffalo looked shaky in the early going, committing six turnovers before the first TV timeout. Some of that was jitters, but it was also Ohio’s active hands as the Bobcats had four steals.
BULLISH BOARD WORK
Led by the relentless Mballa, Buffalo led the nation in rebounding last season. The Bulls came into the title game leading again this season, averaging 44.1 per game, and were second in offensive rebounds.
No team has finished a season averaging 44 or more rebounds since Quinnipiac (45.37) in 2014-15.
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