Published Sat, Mar 17, 2012 7:32 pm Dateline
Updated Sat, Mar 17, 2012 8:19 pm
Since the beginning of what has become a magical season for the Ohio Bobcats basketball team, head coach John Groce has stressed time and again the importance of his team playing its best basketball at the end of the season.
He never once got caught up in the accolades of his team shooting out of the gates to a program-tying best start in school history at 12-1. It didn't matter that they were just a few votes shy of being ranked in the AP Top 25 at the end of December. All that mattered to Groce was that his team continued to get better so that when the pressure packed months of February and March arrived, his team was playing its very best.
Job well done, coach.
The 'Cats march through the madness is still alive in Nashville, after a decisive victory over fourth-seeded Michigan. Friday's was a game where Ohio proved to be the better team on the floor - never relinquishing its lead in the final 28 minutes of the game. Now, a trip to the program's first Sweet 16 under the current NCAA Tournament structure is just one win away.
Even more impressive is that Ohio began its hot play after its worst two-game stretch of the season.
Remember when Ohio dropped back-to-back games to Toledo and Eastern Michigan in the beginning of February? Yes, against a Toledo team who at the time was just 10-13 overall and 2-7 in MAC play, Ohio shot just 39 percent (21-54) from the floor and 36 percent (8-22) from three, relinquishing a 15-point first half lead while being dominated by Rian Pearson (18 points, 16 rebounds) and eventually losing 77-73. A game that had coach Groce questioning his team's toughness.
They followed up that clunker, with their worst offensive game of the season in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Ohio was held scoreless over the first 10+ minutes of the game and were held to a frigid 31 percent (15-48) field goal shooting and 23 percent (6-26) from deep. They were held to just 55 points - their fewest in MAC play - and allowed 50 percent (18-36) shooting by the Eagles including 67 percent (8-12) from behind the arc.
Those two losses dropped Ohio to 7-4 in conference play, from second in the MAC to a fourth place tie with Bowling Green. At that point, Groce's Bobcats were a 38 percent (230-592) shooting team and just 30 percent (71-234) from beyond the perimeter in MAC play.
But since those two losses, Ohio has come alive. The Bobcats are 9-1 since that two-game slide and have been lights out shooting the ball. During this run, Ohio has shot 45 percent (252-557) from the field and a dynamite 40 percent (85-210) from three, including a red-hot 43 percent clip from deep in the MAC tournament. Ohio avenged its loss to Toledo in the quarterfinals, 65-57, before beating Akron for a second time in the MAC finals, punching its second ticket to the Big Dance in three seasons and propelling them to yet another first round upset over a top four seed in the NCAA's. The win had their coach acknowledging how far they've come this season.
"We're playing our best basketball of the year," he revealed after the win over Michigan. "No doubt about that."
"And, you know, we haven't arrived yet."