The Bobcats don’t always make the NCAA Tournament.
But when they do? Well, you’ll want to give them the benefit of a doubt in their first-round matchup.
Ohio staged another March upset on Saturday night, as the 13th-seeded Bobcats knocked off No. 4 seed Virginia 62-58 inside Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. Trailing by as many as seven points in the second half, Ohio (17-7) scored 31 points in the final 13 minutes to stun the Cavaliers (18-7) – the ACC regular season champion and defending national champions.
“Championship teams finds ways to win,” said Ohio second-year head coach Jeff Boals, himself an Ohio grad and former player. “We’re just happy to be moving on.”
Ohio has “moved on” out of the first round in each of its last three appearances in March Madness. OU, as a 14-seed, blew out No. 3 Georgetown in the first round in 2010. In 2012, the Bobcats (as a 13-seed) took out No. 4 Michigan, and then beat 12-seed USF on its way to an improbable Sweet 16 berth.
The win was the eighth all-time for Ohio in the NCAA Tournament. The Bobcats advance to Monday’s second round and a matchup against No. 5 seed Creighton,
The Bobcats did it again this time thanks timely big shots from junior forward Ben Vander Plas, a huge 3-pointer late from sophomore wing Ben Roderick, and the steady, do-it-all talents of junior guard Jason Preston.
And defense, lots of defense. Virginia shot just 35.0 percent overall, hit only 8 of 31 (25.8 percent) from 3-point range and saw Ohio win the rebounding battle 38-29. OU outscored UVA in the paint, 28-18.
In short, the Bobcats beat the Cavaliers in their own low-possession, every-trip-matters style of game.
“When you come to March Madness, NCAA tournament, half-court offense, defense, execution is going to win you the game,” Boals said. “Just really proud of our guys. I thought we got some really big stops late.”
UVA arrived to the tournament site in Indianapolis on Friday, and never had a full practice in Assembly Hall as it sat quarantined all week due to a positive COVID-19 test in the ACC Tournament a week earlier. The Cavaliers played without backup forward Justin McKoy.
But Virginia leaned on its defense and led 38-31 with less than 15 minutes remaining after Kihei Clark scored on a fast-break layup.
As it turned out, the Bobcats were just getting started. From that point on, Ohio hit 10 of its final 16 shots. The only OU miss in the final five minutes came when Dwight Wilson III”s dunk attempt popped out of the rim.
“We kept fighting back. That resilience is showing now,” said Vander Plas, who scored a game-high 17 points and added five rebounds and four assists.
Down seven, Ohio rattled off a 14-2 run. Vander Plas made back-to-back deep 3-pointers from the left wing, in front of his own pulsating, towel-waving bench. The first gave OU a 42-39 lead, and the second moved the lead to plus-5 with less than seven minutes remaining. Virginia never led again.
Vander Plas made it 10 consecutive points for OU with a pair of tough layups inside and the Bobcats led 49-42 with four minutes to go.
“Ben…made some huge plays in the second half,” Boals said.
Roderick essentially clinched it with a dagger 3-pointer. Up 53-49, with the shot clock about to expire and less than 70 seconds left, Roderick hauled in a cross-court pass from Vander Plas. Roderick used a pump fake, took a one-dribble step to his left, and canned the 3-pointer for a seven-point lead with 100 seconds left.
Virginia didn’t go quietly. Jay Huff scored twice inside, and Trey Murphy III hit a 3-pointer in transition with seven seconds left to pull the Cavs to within 60-58.
Ohio didn’t flinch. The ‘Cats hit all six of their free throws in the final 43 seconds, and Lunden McDay’s pair with 5.0 seconds left wrapped it up.
Preston finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists for Ohio, and expertly adapted to the extra defense Virginia threw his way. Ohio — the fifth-seed for the MAC Tournament last week — has won four straight games, 10 of its last 11 and will play again in the biggest event the sport has to offer.
According to ESPN, Ohio joined Richmond as the only programs in NCAA Tournament history to win at least three games as a 13-seed or higher in the event.
“It’s awesome, it’s awesome,” Preston told the CBS broadcast after the game. “We’re going to compete, no matter who we’re playing…every single possession.
“We’re gonna compete and we’re going to have fun.”
The loss marked the second first-round exit in the three tournaments for Virginia, which failed to win in the 500th career game of head coach Tony Bennett’s career. UVA was ousted by 16-seed UMBC in 2018 before winning the title in 2019.
“I faced such joy in this tournament on so many occasions. I’ve faced the heartache, too,” Bennett said. “Again, as I say, you always have to be willing to accept them both, know that when your career is done this doesn’t define you, whether you win it all or you lose or anything. It’s what you do, you do it with love, joy and passion, then you don’t let it define you beyond what it should.”
The joy, this night, was with the green-clad Bobcats, who rushed the floor and soaked the locker room with full-throated roars in celebration of another March upset.
“When I took the job, I dreamt of this,” said Boals. “Last year we got it taken away, like everyone else. This year coming in, that was our goal.
“This is awesome where we’re at right now, hopefully we keep this thing going.”