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Cold-shooting Bobcats eliminated by Creighton

Bluejays close 1st half on huge run, hold Bobcats to 31.8% shooting

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Shots would not fall, and Ohio’s dance in the NCAA Tournament ended with a 72-58 loss to Creighton on Monday evening at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

The No. 13 seed Bobcats shot just 31.8% for the game, including 23.3% from long range, and scored a season low. The No. 5 seed Bluejays held Mid-American Conference Tournament MVP Jason Preston to just four points on 1-of-10 shooting, and they advance to the Sweet 16 to take on No. 1 seed and top-ranked Gonzaga.

Creighton used a 23-5 run to close the first half to build a 15-point halftime lead and Ohio could not recover, coming only as close as nine in the final minutes of the game.

All five Bluejays starters average double-figures, and all five reached that mark, led by Marcus Zegarowski with 20 points. Damien Jefferson added 15 points.

Dwight Wilson III paced the Bobcats with 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, scored the 1,000th point of his career and broke Gary Trent’s single-season field goal percentage record, but virtually no one else could find their shooting touch. Backup Colin Granger made both of his attempts, but Ohio’s guards and Ben Vander Plas went a combined 14 of 56 (25%).

“You hate to see something like this end the way it ended, but that does not take away from anything that they’ve done. I told them as an alumnus and former player, ‘Thank you,’ and that I loved them, and this team will be bonded for life. It hurts right now, but it’s going to be a great memory someday.”

Ohio led 11-6 early, but Creighton recovered from a slow shooting start of its own. Down 19-16 following a Ben Roderick 3-pointer, the Bluejays scored 23 points over the final 8:03 of the first half. After going 3 of 12 to start the game, Creighton rebounded to shoot 45% in the game.

The decisive run began with a Denzel Mahoney 3-pointer to tie the score at 19. Ohio took its final lead, 20-19, when Preston split two free throws for his only point of the first half, but Creighton went up for good with back-to-back Christian Bishop dunks.

Wilson scored in the paint to make it a one-point game, but the Bluejays scored eight straight after that, four of them by Jefferson. After Vander Plas ended the run with a putback, Zegarowski put Creighton up double digits with a 3-pointer and then knocked down another one before a Mahoney layup capped another eight-point burst, making it 39-24 at the half.

“We missed shots, and they turned those into transition points,” Boals said. “We turned the ball over; they turned those into transition points.”

Back-to-back 3-pointers early in the second half by Jefferson and Zegarowski gave the Bluejays a 52-31 lead. Preston made his only field goal of the game, and Wilson scored six points, including two free throws, to get the Bobcats within striking distance at 54-41 with 10 minutes to go, but Mitch Ballock answered back with a layup and then assisted a Bishop dunk to make it a 17-point game again.

Ohio’s final push came with an 8-0 run that included a Preston free throw, 3-pointers by Lunden McDay and Marks Sears and then a Sears free throw with 2:26 remaining that made it 65-56.

Still with a sound lead, though, Zegarowski’s runner and five free throws were more than enough for Creighton needed to close it out for its first regional semifinal appearance in 47 years when the tournament was just 25 teams.

“It means a lot. Obviously, the tournament was a lot different in 1974,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “… To do it with this core group of guys, what they went through last year to be able to get to this day and have this opportunity, obviously I’m really, really proud of them. … This is a ribbon on top of it now, but I hope we’re not finished.”

Though the Bluejays were in control for most of the game, the Bobcats scored the game’s first five points on a Wilson putback and a Vander Plas 3-pointer. After missing its first five field goal attempts, Creighton got on the board on a Bishop dunk.

Granger had back-to-back baskets for Ohio, and then Wilson came back in to score inside to make it 11-6. Creighton scored seven straight after that, taking its first lead, 13-11, on a Zegarowski 3-pointer with 10:44 remaining in the half. McDay tied the game with a jumper, and Roderick connected on a couple of 3-pointers before it fell apart.

“We got some really good looks in the first half; they just didn’t fall,” Boals said. “When you dig yourself that big a hole against a really good offensive team, you expect so much energy to get back in it.”

Ohio committed seven turnovers in the first half leading to 13 points for Creighton. The Bobcats had just two first-half points off of four Bluejays turnovers.

Even while struggling with his shot, Preston impacted the game with nine rebounds and seven assists, but he also had four turnovers.

Vander Plas, whose shoe fell apart compeltely in the second half, managed nine points on 3-of-12 shooting and had 10 rebounds and six turnovers. McDay had 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting, and Roderick scored 10 while going 4 of 12.

“They trapped all the ball screens and tried to get the ball out of his (Prestons’) hands,” Boals said.

Jefferson had 15 points and five rebounds for Creighton. Mahoney finished with 11 points, and Ballock had 10 points and five assists.

The Bobcats flashed their potential early in the season, nearly knocking off Illinois and then going on an NCAA record 40-0 run against Cleveland State, but they ran into some struggles that included a Preston injury and at one point were just 7-6.

In his second season at his alma mater, Boals coached Ohio to 10 wins in its next 11 games despite two stoppages because of COVID-19 contact tracing. That included three dominant victories in the MAC Tournament and then a 62-58 upset victory of defending national champion Virginia in its NCAA Tournament opener.

"The ride you guys gave Bobcat Nation, alumni, former players, the student body, is special,” Boals told the team after the game. "I love this team. I love everything about you."

That was the Bobcats’ third straight win in opening round games of the tournament, but they could not match their Sweet 16 tournament run of their last appearance in 2012.

The potential is there, however, for Ohio to do it again next year. Wilson is the only senior on the team, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year does not count against eligibility, and he has the option to return next year.

At the same time, there is some potential for the Bobcats to lose all three of their top players. Preston, a junior, is considered an NBA prospect, while Vander Plas, a redshirt junior, already is in position to complete a master’s degree.

“I’m thankful I was able to coach him. He’s going to have a decision to make. We’ll take some time off, regroup, see where he’s at mentally, talk out, communication, and see what happens with him,” Boals said.

Preston agreed, saying it was too soon to say whether he would be back.

"I can’t really think about that right now,” Preston said. “I’ll pray about it, talk to God about it and talk to Coach Boals about it.”

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