Ohio University men’s basketball coach Jeff Boals knows very well a large contingent of Bobcat alumni are from Northeast Ohio. He knows because as a native of Magnolia, a quaint village with 1,106 residents near Canton, he is part of that alumni.
Until they played Buffalo on March 13 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the Bobcats hadn’t been to the men’s MAC tournament finals since 2013. They hadn’t even qualified for the tournament as one of the top eight teams in the conference since 2017 until this year.
Ohio, 9-5 in the MAC and 15-7 overall in the regular season, was seeded fifth at the start of the tournament. The Bobcats beat fourth-seeded Kent State, 85-63, to advance to the semifinals and then stunned top-seeded Toledo, 97-80, on March 12. Second-seeded Buffalo knocked off Akron in the second game March 12 to set the stage for the showdown between the Bulls and Bobcats.
“I’m just really happy for our team and players and our fans,“ Boals said after upsetting Toledo. “This is what you play for you know? It’s March Madness.
“I’ve said it before. I walk into the Convo (the Convocation Center, Ohio’s home arena) every single day and I look up at the banners. My goal when I took over the job was to put another banner up there. Not one person on our roster has played in this game.”
Promises kept: The Bobcats rode a 16-0 run in the first half to a 41-21 lead at intermission and then survived a second-half challenge to beat Buffalo, 84-69, win the MAC tournament and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
The Bobcats were tournament champions three times this millennium before March 13 — in 2012, 2010 and 2005. Prior to that they won in 1994, 1985 and 1983. Boals, 48, played on the 1994 team. The Bobcats entered the NCAA 64-team tournament as a 12th seed that season and lost to fifth-seeded Indiana, 84-72, in the first round.
The 2020-21 season was like no other, which made winning the tournament as a fifth-seed an even greater accomplishment. COVID-19 protocols forced postponement or cancellation of five straight games after the Bobcats beat Central Michigan on Feb. 2. They went three weeks without facing an opponent, beat Akron on Feb. 23 and ended the regular season with a lopsided 86-66 loss to Buffalo in Athens on Feb. 27.
That loss is a distant memory now. The Bobcats are playing their best basketball at the best possible time.
“Everybody is playing their hardest and everybody has an unreal amount of confidence out there,” Ohio redshirt junior forward Ben Vander Plas said. “We all have each other’s backs out there. Each of us knows that. It’s easy to go out there and give it your hardest when you know the guy to your left and the guy to your right are doing the same thing.”
Boals has worked his way up the coaching ladder. He graduated from Ohio U in 1995 and spent one season as an assistant there before moving on. He was an assistant coach at Akron from 2006-09 and an assistant coach at Ohio State from 2009-16, coaching under That Matta, before getting the head coaching job at Stonybrook. He stayed at Stonybrook for three years. He jumped at it when the head coaching job at Ohio opened.
The only disappointment Boals felt heading into the championship game with Buffalo was that more Bobcats fans couldn’t be in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. He knows they would have been cheering his team on if not for the COVID protocols limiting total ticket sales to around 2,700 — the maximum allowed for a Cavaliers home game.
“I grew up in Northeast Ohio,” Boals said. “I’ve been to some Bobcat alumni deals in Cleveland. There are a ton of Bobcats up here.
“When I got the job, it was mentioned that when Ohio University makes it to the semifinals or finals, that’s when you get 12,000 or 13,000 people here. Through this whole year, probably the biggest you miss is the band, the cheerleaders, the fans — just that atmosphere.”
There is always next year, and that applies to more than the battle against the pandemic trending in the right direction.
Forward Dwight Wilson III is the only senior on the current roster. Ten of the 14 others are either sophomores or freshmen. Instead of being underdogs next year, the experienced Bobcats should be favored to repeat as MAC tournament champions.
The pride of Ohio University basketball is back.