The game over, the battle won, Ben Vander Plas took a moment to talk with Tony Bennett. Together they turned and pointed up into the stands inside Assembly Hall.
Ohio’s forward and the Virginia men’s basketball coach were acknowledging Dean Vander Plas – Ben’s (full name Bennett, or this week Maximus as dubbed by Jeff Boals) father. The ties that bind the three men won’t fray or unravel from the results of another delirious Ohio upset in the NCAA Tournament.
But they might be forged anew.
Ben Vander Plas scored a game-high 17 points, and seemingly hit nothing but big shots throughout, as Ohio picked up a third-straight, first-round win in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night in Bloomington, Ind.
Ohio, the 13-seed, upended No. 4 seed (and defending national champion) Virginia in a 62-58 thriller. The game was never separated by more than seven points and carried the kind of tension associated with the style played throughout – gritty with a sense that every possession could THE ONE that decided the outcome.
Vander Plas, the younger, was named after Dick Bennett – the former head coach at UW-Green Bay (and eventually Wisconsin as well). At Green Bay, Dean Vander Plas and Tony Bennett were teammates on a team that reached the 1991 NCAA Tournament.
Here, 30 years later, Ben Vander Plas delivered the kind of performance in an upset that induces the anything-is-possible magic soaked through the onset of March Madness every spring.
“The Bennett family is where my name comes from. That family has meant a lot to my family over the years,” Vander Plas said afterward.
“When we got matched up, I was really excited to play against him,” he continued, referring to Tony Bennett. “He’s a great coach. Yeah, I got to talk to him for a little bit after the game. He asked where my dad was sitting. I pointed up there. Yeah, that was a pretty cool moment with Coach Bennett.”
It was a cool one for Vander Plas, and a tough one for Bennett. The loss marked the second first-round exit for Virginia in the last three NCAA Tournaments. It’s an outcome not expected for the Cavaliers, who won the ACC this season and have blossomed into a deep tournament contender every season under Bennett’s guidance.
And here was the son of one his best friends causing the pain.
Vander Plas did more than score 17 points. He kept the Bobcats in the game with rebounding (5) and passing (4 assists), and an uncanny knack for defending the post. UVA scored just 18 points in the paint.
Vander Plas’ deep straight-on 3-pointer right before the first-half buzzer brought OU to within 28-27 at the break. After missing 18 of 28 shots in the first half, the Bobcats had momentum. And confidence. On the shot, Vander Plas began to fist-pump for the result before the ball was halfway home.
With his father Dean going nuts in the stands (as shown by CBS cameras), Vander Plas sparked Ohio’s closing sprint with back-to-back 3-pointers from the left side in front of a celebrating Ohio bench. After the second, Ohio led 45-40 and never trailed again.
Vander Plas wasn’t done. He grinded through a post-touch for a layup, then used a quick, off-hand scoop shot on another drive to score 10 straight Ohio points.
UVA forward Sam Hauser, Vander Plas’ childhood AAU teammate, was often matched up one-on-one with his friend. Hauser scored 15 points and had nine rebounds with three assists in a mirror-image reflection of what Vander Plas was doing.
But Hauser hit just 4 of 16 shots; Vander Plas bucketed 7 of 15.
“He’s a great player, man. He’s crafty, deceiving, got a really good shot fake,” Hauser said. “Man, he’s good. He’s so sound, so fundamentally sound. He’s a good player. He is kind of like a glue guy to that team. Without him, I don’t know what they’d be like.”
Bennett knew beforehand what Vander Plas brought to the table, after all he saw it 30 years ago with Dean. But ever graceful, even in defeat, Bennett managed to compliment both afterward.
“(Vander Plas) did what his old man would do when I played with him: make key plays,” Bennett said. “He’s really good. Hit some big threes end of the half. That was a big three, then the two threes he hit and a couple drives. He’s just skilled and sound and he knows how to play the game.
“Again, happy for him. Hurting for our guys.”
On a team with a rising star in guard Jason Preston, Vander Plas has been content to be the sidekick. He’ll play center when Ohio goes small. He helped lead the defense-and-rebounding focus needed by the Bobcats down the stretch.
He’ll take big guys outside, and post up smaller defenders. He’ll screen, and pass. Whatever Ohio needs, he’ll try to provide it.
“Ben…he’s a Swiss army knife,” Preston said earlier this week.
On this night, Ohio needed him to be a scorer, to provide some swagger and toughness. Preston shined as well, as he usually does with a stat-sheet stuffing performance. But with the game hanging in the balance, it was Vander Plas converting those ‘must-have’ shots.
Over the last couple of weeks, Vander Plas has been talking with Preston about P.J. Tucker – the undersized forward/center with the Houston Rockets.
“How he goes out and guards one through five, plays with irrational confidence,” Vander Plas said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do, just go out there and just play free.”
On Saturday, Vander Plas played like Tucker, he looked a lot like Hauser, and showed up like his father Dean in a big spot.
But Ben Vander Plas doesn’t need the comparisons any longer. From now on, he’ll be the guy that helped Ohio etch another memorable upset with his own hard to pigeon-hole game.
“Man, that game, the atmosphere, even with the limited fans, it’s a dream come true to be out here playing the game I love,” Vander Plas said. “Got a couple family members up in the stands, playing with a team I love, playing for a coaching staff I love playing with. Man, it was a special moment out there.”
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