BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Ohio’s Jason Preston was double-teamed, backing up toward the half-court line, maybe an inch or two away from the kind of turnover that so often crushes the dreams of underdogs in March.
Games in this tournament are decided on such small margins. If you go back through the history of every big upset or near-upset, it’s almost comical how many times one possession, one bounce of the ball, one call, can swing everything.
With 1:12 remaining and No. 13 seed Ohio leading by four against No. 4 seed Virginia, Preston had no choice but to get rid of the ball or else be called for a backcourt violation. So he launched it high to the left sideline to Ben Vander Plas, who immediately reversed it to Ben Roderick on the opposite side of the floor. With time running down and Virginia’s Reece Beekman flying at him, Roderick freed space with half of a shot fake and squared up for an open look as the shot clock hit zero.
In many ways, Ohio’s 62-58 win over the Cavaliers is not nearly as much of a surprise as it will appear in the history books.
The Bobcats may have finished fifth in the Mid-American Conference regular season, but they came into the NCAA Tournament smoking hot. Virginia, for all its national championship pedigree, overachieved in the regular season to win a down ACC, then didn’t practice for nearly a week before the tournament because a COVID-19 positive test shut them down. The moment the bracket came out, Ohio was a popular pick, if for no other reason than the circumstances were in its favor.
But to win it the way the Bobcats did Saturday? To not just beat Virginia but out-execute the Cavaliers possession-for-possession down the stretch? That just doesn’t happen very often — COVID pause or not. That’s not how Virginia loses. But it did this time.
“Give our guys a lot of credit for the offensive execution from the five-minute mark on,” Ohio coach Jeff Boals said. “I’m not sure what we were total, but it seemed like every time we did something, our guys ended up making a positive play.”
For pretty much the entire game, it felt like the door was open for Ohio. Virginia was able to maintain a small lead but could never hit enough jump shots to break it open to 10 or 12.
“We ran good offense, got some rhythm, open looks that I’d take again in terms of the quality of the looks and just had trouble capitalizing on them,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
The question, after Ohio was finally able to put together a quick 8-0 run to take the lead with 7 minutes left, was whether the Bobcats could keep making enough baskets down the stretch to hold off Virginia’s final push.
That was a big ask for Ohio against a program whose foundation is its defense, but what followed was as flawless a series of possessions as you could ever hope to put together against Virginia.
From the 4:43 mark until the Roderick three that pretty much sealed the deal, Ohio made baskets on five out of six possessions — all of them wide-open looks or layups — with the one miss coming on a missed dunk that should have been the easiest basket of them all.
Preston, one of the nation’s best guards this season who has made himself an intriguing NBA prospect, completely controlled the game down the stretch, including an assist to Dwight Wilson coming out of a timeout on a play that completely undressed Virginia with 2:42 to go.
“I told him this is where stars are born, legacies are made,” Boals said of Preston, who also had 11 points and 13 rebounds to go along with his eight assists. “Give them a lot of credit. (Kihei) Clark is a very good defender. But Jason in the second half was able to get around a couple of those, had some huge rebounds. Just a phenomenal effort. He’s the heart and soul of our team. The world saw today who he is and what he’s able to do.”
Preston is a great story. After losing his mother to cancer while he was a teenager, he went to Central Florida to be a regular student, because he wasn’t nearly a good enough basketball player in high school to be considered for any college scholarship.
His journey from there to becoming an NBA prospect is almost hard to comprehend, but it’s very real for an Ohio team that sometimes needs him to put up big scoring numbers but can also thrive off his creativity.
And that’s enough to give Ohio some hope that its tournament run can go on a little longer. The Bobcats will play No. 5 seed Creighton on Monday with all the confidence that if they get in another close game, they can run their offense and get good looks down the stretch.
“I’m not going to lie. Anytime we play a basketball game, doesn’t matter who it is, I think Jason Preston is the best player on the court,” Vander Plas said.
“I’ve seen him do things that I haven’t seen anybody else do. The way he plays the game, it’s so phenomenal. Yeah, anytime we step on the court, I think we got the best player on the court out there.”