Updated Sat, Mar 24, 2012 2:30 am
The Bobcats' magical run to the Sweet 16 was 3:49 away from the Elite 8. At that point, Ohio had its biggest lead, 57-53. But North Carolina, led by Harrison Barnes' four points down the stretch, closed on a 7-3 run to force overtime and Ohio ran out of gas. The Tar Heels out-scored Ohio 10-2 in the extra period, ending the best season in Ohio's history.
Overview: At first, it appeared this game would be all North Carolina. The Tar Heels' supreme size and athleticism was startling from the outset, as UNC used two different big runs - one 10-0 and the other 12-3 - to open a 26-11 lead (with blow out city not far off) at the 6:59 mark of the first half. But Ohio never stopped playing. Back-to-back three pointers by Kellogg and Offutt, mixed with a lay up by Dj Cooper, and Ohio was suddenly back within striking distance, down just 26-19. That seven-point deficit wound up carrying into half, UNC up 29-22. All things considered, Ohio felt fortunate being down just seven, as the Bobcats hit only 23 percent of its first half shots and were out-rebounded 30-17. The catalyst was turnovers. Ohio forced 13 Carolina turnovers - eight of them steals - and turned those into 10 points.
Fired up by a strong first half close, Ohio played neck-and-neck with UNC before the first media timeout, still down just seven, after the first of five second half three pointers by Offutt. The three ball sparked Ohio on a 11-2 run to close the game to 39-38 at the under 12 timeout, fueled by another Offutt three ball, a T.J. Hall three pointer, and and a basket by Ivo Baltic. Over the next four minutes, Ohio traded baskets with UNC, and was never able to take the lead it was so close to grasping.
It wasn't until Kellogg hit his fourth and final three pointer of the game that Ohio finally had the lead, 47-46 at the 8:30 mark. Sparked by more Offutt magic at the three point line, Cooper getting into the act from deep and weathering UNC's size, the Bobcats hit the final media timeout with a 55-53 lead with Cooper heading to the line. He hit both to put Ohio ahead by four.
But, North Carolina closed the game behind Barnes who scored four straight points, tying the game at 57 with 3:22 remaining. Offutt and John Henson followed up with jumpers to keep the game even before Tyler Zeller was fouled and sent to the line after a foul on T.J. Hall. The UNC big man hit only one of two but put his team up 60-59.
But Baltic, with a reverse fadeaway, over the out-stretched arms of Henson, put Ohio back ahead, 61-60 with 1:42 on the clock. The score would hold until the 40 second mark, but that's when Reggie Bullock hit a clutch three pointer for Carolina, putting the Tar Heels up 63-61. Timeout Ohio.
Out of the break, it was no surprise the play was designed for Offutt, who had played inspiring ball all night for the 'Cats. Offutt went strong to the hoop, absorbed contact and laid in the bucket, tying the game at 63 and headed to the line, with a chance to put Ohio ahead with 25 seconds to go, but missed. North Carolina used a timeout to design their last shot. The Tar Heels milked the clock but never got a shot attempt, instead turning it over, allowing a Cooper desperation heave at the buzzer that came oh-so close, clanking just to the right of the hoop, hitting the rim and backboard and falling to the floor, sending the game into the first overtime period of this year's NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately for Bobcat faithful, it seemed like the green-and-white ran out of gas during the extra five minutes. Plagued by foul trouble heading in, the Bobcats made only two free throws, allowing UNC to close the game on an 10-2 run and send the Bobcats home for the tournament.
"Awful proud of our guys for the way that they fought when things weren't going well during the game," head coach John Groce said afterwards. "The fact that we don't get to practice anymore this season hurts probably more than anything because of how much I've enjoyed being around them."
"They made some big plays in overtime," Dj Cooper said in the postgame press conference. "They stepped up and made plays and we didn't."
"One free throw away," Offutt said afterwards. "As a leader on this team I take responsibility. But I'm proud of the guys, proud of the coaching staff, and proud of the university."
Stat of the Night: It's no secret what ultimately doomed this Ohio team, who played with so much heart all game long: The 63-30 rebounding disparity between the teams. North Carolina is such a bigger team than Ohio that losing the rebounding edge was almost a given coming into the game. But Groce said on Thursday that his team just needed to be competitive. They didn't have to win the rebounding edge, they just couldn't get dominated. In the end, they were annihilated. Tyler Zeller couldn't be stopped on the glass, pulling down 22 on his own to go with 20 points. In all, three UNC players had double digit rebounds. Henson pulled down 10 to go with 14 points and Bullock also collected 10 to go with 17 points.
"They're huge," Groce commented after the game. "They get 40 percent back on the season which is top-five in the country. So we're not the only team they did that to. I would have liked to have competed a little bit better there."
Player of the Game: Despite the missed free throw at the very end, Offutt played his best game of the season Friday night, scoring 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting, including 6-of-10 from deep. He single-handedly kept the Bobcats in the game at times, hitting big basket after big basket when Carolina seemed prepared to go on one of its game-changing runs. Going back to the South Florida win in the third round, Offutt hit 10-of-14 three pointers and became the Bobcats primary target from deep. The fact that he put the game on his shoulders for the missed free throw in the end shows the kind of leadership he brings to this team, which will return its entire roster.