With Walter Offutt, Nick Kellogg and, of course, D.J. Cooper leading the way, Ohio University is now in rarefied air, headed to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 48 years.
The 13th-seeded Bobcats knocked off 12th-seeded South Florida 62-56 in a third-round game in Bridgestone Arena tonight to earn the trip to the Midwest Regional semifinals in St. Louis. They will meet top-seeded North Carolina on Friday night.
But the important thing, fourth-year Ohio coach John Groce said, is that the Bobcats (29-7) are still dancing. Two years ago, after upsetting Georgetown in an opening game, they wilted against Tennessee.
“Obviously this is a big win for our program, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1964,” Groce said.
It happened, Offutt said, because “everybody on this team seemed to make key plays down the stretch.”
They had to. Ohio was down 27-21 at the half to a South Florida team that had carved its way into the third round with dominating defense. But the Bobcats scored 41 points in the second half, with Offutt, Kellogg and Cooper doing much of the damage.
Offutt tied it at 31 at the 15:49 mark with five straight points.
Jawanza Poland was assessed a technical for hanging on the rim after an alley-oop dunk that had put the Bulls up 42-37 with 9:23 left. Kellogg made the two free throws, and that seemed to bring a momentum change.
“That was big, Coach letting me shoot those free throws, because it let me see the ball going through the net,” said Kellogg, a DeSales graduate. “Then I had the confidence to shoot the three."
In fact, he followed those free throws with the three-point basket that tied it at 42.
Offutt gave Ohio the lead for good, 47-46, with 7:11 left with a three from the left flank. Offutt was 3 of 3 from long range in the second half, on his way to a team-high 21 points. Kellogg made both of his three-point tries in the second half after missing all three in the first. He finished with nine points.
“It seems like they didn’t miss any threes in the second half,” said South Florida guard Anthony Collins, who credited the Bobcats with doing a good job shooting off screens. “They got open and they made the shots.”
But the true harbinger of Ohi’so advancement was a 10-foot floater in the lane by Cooper as the shot clock ran out with 1:32 left. It upped the lead to 58-51 and left South Florida in desperate straits.
“I just tried to attack,” said Cooper, who finished with 19 points. “I stepped up and knocked it down.”
Toarlyn Fitzpatrick’s three-pointer did cut Ohio’s lead to 59-56 with 49 seconds left, but Cooper came back with two free throws, and the Bobcats were on their way.
The last time Ohio was in the regional semifinals, it wasn’t yet called the Sweet 16. In 1964 the Bobcats, part of a 24-team field, beat Louisville and Kentucky in the first two rounds before losing to Michigan in the Mideast Regional final.
It took 48 years, but the Bobcats are back.
“We know we can compete with the bigger teams,” said Offutt, an Ohio State recruit who eventually transferred to Ohio in 2010. “We expect to win these games. I think that’s playing a big part with what we’re doing now.”