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Preston, Vander Plas lead Bobcats to upset of top-seeded Rockets

Duo combines for 53 points to put Ohio in MAC title game

CLEVELAND – Jason Preston and Ben Vander Plas combined for 53 points to help Ohio knock off Mid-American Conference regular season champion Toledo 87-80 in the semifinals of the conference tournament Friday evening at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Preston scored 27 points with five assists and five rebounds, while Vander Plas had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Dwight Wilson III added a double-double of 12 points and 12 rebounds.

No. 5 seed Ohio (15-7) led by as many as 18 points with 8:33 remaining before MAC Player of the Year Marreon Jackson willed the Rockets (21-8) back into it late. He finished with 29 points. Setrick Millner Jr. added 26 points and nine boards.

No. 2 seed Buffao topped No. 3 Akron 81-74 in overtime in the second semifinal to earn a spot against the Bobcats in Saturday's championship game.

"A big key was getting off to a really good start offensively," Ohio coach Jeff Boals said. "It was kind of going back-and-forth early. At halftime, we talked about it being 0-0. They've been in this situation a lot over the course of the year and we knew they were going to make a run. We always talk about bend but don't break. It wasn't pretty, but our guys ended up finishing the game and I'm really proud of them."

The Bobcats led 43-31 at halftime and maintained a double-digit lead until late. They took their biggest lead of 68-50 on a Vander Plas basket and still led 74-58 before a Spencer Littleson basket cut Toledo’s deficit to 14 with 4:03 remaining.

Miller Jr. scored following an offensive rebound with 1:55 left to make it 79-69, and after a turnover, Jackson converted a three-point play to get Toledo to a single-digit deficit for the first time in the second half.

Preston threw a full-court inbound pass to Vander Plas for a layup on the other end, and after Jackson answered with his final basket of the game, the Bobcats were able to work the shot clock before Preston hit Vander Plas for a knockout 3-pointer that made it 84-74 with 58 seconds to go.

Preston beat the defense down the court for a layup to answer a Millner basket, making it a 10-point game again. J.T. Shumate scored, and after Ben Roderick missed twice from the foul line, Littleson scored with 14 seconds to go. Miles Brown split two free throws with 10 seconds left to officially put it away.

Ohio set the tone early with Preston knocking down a 3-pointer on the game’s opening possession. Littleson answered with a 3-pointer to tie it, but Vander Plas scored following an offensive rebound, and the Bobcats led the rest of the way.

"A big key was how they started the game shooting," Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. "Early on they made some deep 3s, some contested 3s. Give Ohio credit for making their shots. They're a good team. They played better than us today."

It was 22-19 with eight minutes left in the first half when the Bobcats made their biggest run, starting with a Preston layup on a feed from Vander Plas, who then assist a Preston 3-pointer on the next possession. Wilson scored in the post to make it a double-digit game for the first time, 29-19.

"I was just trying to do my best Jason Preston impression out there," Vander Plas said. "Playmaking has always kind of been part of my game. I feel like I've always been able to see the floor well and tonight was an opportunity that I had to make a couple more of those plays. Guys were making good cuts and setting great screens."

Later in the first half, a Preston 3-pointer made it 40-27, and a Vander Plas 3-pointer gave Ohio its biggest lead of the first half, 43-29, before a Jackson basket before the buzzer got Toledo to within 12.

Vander Plas scored a layup, Lunden McDay had a three-point play, and Wilson scored inside on a 7-0 run early in the second half that gave Ohio a 52-35 lead that was the biggest in the game until Vander Plas’ basket with eight and a half minutes to go.

The Bobcats dominated the boards 42-33, including 17-11 on the offensive end, and advantage that was 15-3 at one point.

Ohio shot 48.6% in the game, including 9 of 25 (36%) on 3-pointers. After shooting just 39.3% in the first half, Toledo warmed up to 47.7% for the game, but the Rockets never found their range, going 6 of 29 (20.7%) on 3-pointers.

Despite going just 3 of 13 from the field, including 0 for 4 from long range, Ben Roderick had 10 points and added seven rebounds for Ohio. McDay finished with eight points.

"I thought we played great tonight, and it's good to get hot right now," Vander Plas said. "It's just everybody playing the hardest and having an unreal amount of confidence out there. We all got each other's backs out there and each of us knows that. It's easy to go out there and give it your hardest when you know the guy to the left and the guy to the right are doing the same thing."

No one besides Jackson and Millner reached double figures for Toledo. Littleson scored nine points and had 10 rebounds, and Shumate finished with eight points and seven rebounds.

Ohio will look to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since its Sweet 16 run in 2012 when it plays in the MAC championship game is 7:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

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