Published Sat, Mar 17, 2012 12:37 am Dateline
Updated Sat, Mar 17, 2012 12:51 am
The Ohio Bobcats are 'Cinderella Men' for the second time in three seasons, beating fourth-seeded Michigan Friday evening, 65-60.
Overview: All week long, the Bobcats insisted they weren't "just happy to be here." On Friday night, they showed they certainly belong on the big stage - yet again. Unphased all week by their matchup with the co-Big Ten Champs, Ohio proved it on the court. Behind 21 points from point guard Dj Cooper, Ohio controlled the majority of the game against its higher seeded foe, never once trailing in the final 28 minutes of the contest.
A big reason Ohio never relinquished its lead was the fact it shot 51.2 percent from the field. The Bobcats time and time again found openings in the Michigan defense and continually exploited whatever Michigan coach Beilen threw at them. Of course, it doesn't hurt when you have the best player on the floor, which Ohio did in Cooper. The Wolverines tried multiple defenders on number 5, but none of them could stop Cooper who shot it well, drove it tough, and passed it to open teammates with ease.
Ohio led by nine points with eight minutes to go after Reggie Keely hit two straight free throws, but as expected, Michigan made one last charge. The Wolverines cut the Ohio lead to 63-60 with just over four minutes remaining and the Michigan crowd went bananas. But as they have seemingly all season long, Ohio's defense rose to the occasion, not allowing another Michigan point in the final 4:12. Even more impressive was the final minute when Michigan had three different possessions to tie the game and came up short each and every time.
"Obviously a great win for our program, for the university, and for the community in Athens," head coach John Groce said afterwards. "Thought it was fitting that we had to rely on our defense late in the game there. That's been our calling card all year."
Turning Point: With Michigan having clawed back to within three points, led by Michigan guard Trey Burke's back-to-back three-pointers, all momentum had swung UM's way. On Ohio's next possession, Cooper missed a deep three-pointer off the dribble and the ball was hanging in the air for either team to take. But on this night, there was no doubt who would come down with the 50/50 rebound...Ohio. Reggie Keely was able to track it down and it allowed Ohio to burn a precious 30 more seconds off the clock.
Key Stat: Michigan shot just 30 percent from the the three-point line tonight. Why is that important? Well, coming into the game UM was a perfect 12-2 on the season when the team shot 35 percent or better from deep. When the Wolverines shot under 35 percent, they were a much more pedestrian 12-7. All season Ohio defended the three-point stripe among the best in the nation. The 'Cats were 14th nationally coming into Friday's game and Groce knew that would be a major key in pulling the upset.
"I thought our ability to guard the three was going to be critical coming into the game," said the 'Cats head coach. "We changed up our coverages during the game…I'll be honest with you, over the course of 40 minutes, I don't know if we busted a coverage one time.
Key Player(s): It's tough not to go on-and-on about the play of Cooper Friday night. All week long, his teammates, coaches and fans were expecting their point guard to play well under the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament and in the underdog role Ohio possessed. He certainly didn't disappoint. Cooper was efficient in all areas, shooting 7-11 from the field, 3-6 from three, and 4-5 from the foul line. He was magnificent and his reputation as a clutch player grew with another huge performance.
"He's spectacular," Groce said. "I'm so proud of how he's grown up. He's matured more. He's worked at it. You take the good with the bad with him and certainly its been a lot of good with him over the years. He's obviously our quarterback and he makes us go."
But also Walter Offutt was huge for Ohio. The guard was plagued by foul trouble in the first half, grabbing his second foul just eight minutes in, but it didn't affect what he does best: play defense. Offutt was a force for the Bobcats defensively all season long, drawing charges, scrapping for loose balls, and being an "in your pocket" defender all season. That play has given him the nickname "Wolf" from his teammates and the "Wolf" side of Offutt made the trip to Nashville. Offutt drew a late charge that stole an extra Ohio possession and he was part of the play of the game, creating a turnover by Michigan's Evan Smotrycz and gathering the loose ball which sent him to the line to ice the game away. Not only was he big on D, but he scored 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting.
"You can't possibly put on a stat sheet how valuable he is," Groce said, referring to Offutt. "He made big plays late in the game, especially on the defensive end and knocked down two free throws, but Walt is one of those guys, I can assure you, he earns everything he gets and means an awful lot to our team."
Up Next: Ohio advances to the third round and a matchup with 12th-seeded South Florida on Sunday at 7:10 EST. The Bulls won a grind-it-out defensive game Friday, upsetting fifth-seeded Temple, 58-44. South Florida has won two games this tournament now, including a victory over California in a first round game this past Wednesday. The winner advances to the Sweet 16 in St. Louis next week.