The defending champions will not repeat, and that is thanks to the Ohio Bobcats.
#13 seed Ohio utilized a 16-2 run in the second in the half to upend the #4 seed Virginia Cavaliers, 62-58, in Bloomington, Indiana on Saturday evening. The Bobcats’ furious offensive rally led the program to its first March Madness victory since reaching the Sweet Sixteen in 2012.
One month ago, the fanbase could not have imagined such an occurrence.
COVID-19 issues canceled or postponed seven of Ohio’s final 10 games. The Bobcats, without much continuity, concluded the regular season as a middling 5-seed in the MAC standings. But the team regrouped and caught fire at the right time in Cleveland to win the MAC Tournament. Now, the Bobcats have created an uproar in the NCAA Tournament, becoming the third team seeded 13 or lower to win in 2021.
After a quick 3-0 lead, Ohio trailed until 7:44 remained in the game. The Bobcats kept Virginia in check for the majority of the contest, trailing by just one point after a crafty stepback three by Ben Vander Plas at the halftime buzzer.
But in the second half, upset hopes seemed to be fading for the MAC champions. The Bobcats struggled to sustain any momentum coming out of the locker room, connecting on just one of its first six field goals while turning it over four times. Virginia extended its lead to its greatest margin of the game at 38-31 before Ohio called a timeout which would quickly reverse its fortune.
Head coach Jeff Boals executed his ATO play to perfection. Star point guard Jason Preston drove straight to the rim and finished with a circus layup. Preston, who averaged 2.2 points per game in high school and was blogging about the Detroit Pistons in college before becoming a student athlete, would set the foundation for a 16-2 run. The Orlando product finished with a near-triple double, obtaining 11 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists in an all-around stellar performance.
After Ohio cut the deficit to 40-39, sharpshooter Ben Vander Plas turned into a walking flamethrower. His three from the left wing handed the Bobcats a 42-40 lead with under eight minutes to go. One possession later, directly after a Virginia turnover, Vander Plas drilled a heat check three that would make Damian Lillard proud. He then took his talents inside the arc to cap off a 10-0 scoring run by himself.
Vander Plas’ 17 total points led the squad but Ben Roderick also contributed to the effort with 15. Roderick hit the most crucial shot of the game for the Bobcats with 1:09 remaining. As Ohio defended a 4-point advantage, Preston was trapped at halfcourt by an aggressive double-team. Preston passed out of the situation and the ball made its way to Roderick. After a pump fake, Roderick sunk a three from the right wing to provide Ohio a 56-49 lead.
While a seven-point lead with under 70 seconds remaining seems comfortable, a disastrous sequence nearly brought Virginia back into the contest. The Cavaliers hauled in three offensive rebounds on a single possession before scoring when trailing by seven. Then, they immediately forced an Ohio turnover and cashed in with an easy layup.
Freshman Mark Sears and sophomore Lunden McDay ensured the Cavaliers would not have an opportunity to complete the comeback. Both guards had ice in their veins when it counted, collectively sinking all four free throws in the final 15 seconds to keep Virginia from having offensive possession in a one-score game.
Ohio celebrated on the court with its first March Madness victory in nine years. Ohio’s win clinched the Mid-American Conference’s third-straight Round of 64 win, and they’ll have the opportunity to become the first MAC team to qualify for the Sweet Sixteen since the 2012 Ohio Bobcats.
Standing in Ohio’s way is #5 seed Creighton, which defeated UC Santa Barbara by fending off a point-blank layup in the final seconds Saturday afternoon. The Round of 32 matchup will tip-off Monday at 6:10 p.m. ET on TNT at the Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.