Monday March 19th, 2012

NASHVILLE -- The last time Walter Offutt's team faced North Carolina, he never left the bench. In fact, a few days after that Nov. 19, 2009 game at Madison Square Garden, Offutt, then a sophomore at Ohio State, decided to leave in hopes of finding a school where he'd make a bigger impact.

On Sunday, Offutt, now a fourth-year junior guard for the Ohio Bobcats, earned himself and his teammates another date with the Tar Heels -- and this time he'll rarely see the bench after pregame introductions.

Offutt's game-high 21 points lifted the Midwest region's No. 13 seed to a 62-56 win over 12th seed USF, earning Ohio its first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1964. The Mid-American Conference's Bobcats did it by knocking off foes from the Big Ten (Michigan) and Big East (USF). Don't expect them to be fazed by one of the ACC's powers, even top-seeded UNC.

"I'm not afraid of the [major-conference schools] at all," said Offutt. "Been there, done that."

It's a common vibe among the Bobcats (29-7), all of whom are plenty excited about reaching the Sweet 16 but few of whom seem all that surprised about it. Star point guard D.J. Cooper scored 23 points in a first-round upset of Georgetown two years ago. They led late at Louisville earlier this season before falling 59-54. Never mind that they needed to knock off top seed Akron in the finals of the MAC tournament just to get an invite to the field of 68. They feel they're right where they belong among the remaining 16.

"We feel we're one of the better teams in the tournament," Offutt said Saturday. Asked at a pregame press conference what his team needed to do to be remembered as a true Cinderella, he nonchalantly replied "Final Four," referencing Butler's runs the past two seasons.

Unlike Brad Stevens' Bulldogs, the Bobcats like to get out and run. They faced a challenge, however, against a USF team that got this far almost entirely because of a grind-it-out approach that limits possessions and frequently produces final scores in the 40s and 50s. It appeared at times like the Bulls would get their way again, holding Ohio without a field goal for a near nine-minute stretch of the first half. It built and held a slight lead for the last 11 minutes of the first half and well into the second.

But momentum changed on, of all things, a monstrous dunk by Bulls guard Jawanza Poland with 9:25 left. While his points put USF up 42-37, he hung on the rim too long, eliciting a technical. Ohio's Nick Kellogg (son of CBS analyst Clark Kellogg) made the ensuing foul shots and began a personal 7-0 run -- including a surprisingly wide-open three immediately following the technical free throws -- to give the Bobcats a 43-42 lead.

"It certainly changed momentum," said USF coach Stan Heath. "... The next play down they ran a staggered screen action. We never stop on screens, we handle those things well, and the net thing I know, [Kellogg] has a wide open shot.

"I haven't seen a wide open shot from an opponent in probably two months."

USF went back ahead, 46-44, but soon thereafter, Cooper was dishing to Offutt for a three to go back up 47-46, followed shortly by another trey from Kellogg to make it 50-46 with 5:43 left.

By night's end Ohio had made nine of 18 three-point attempts, a cool 50 percent against a USF team that came in holding opponents to 29.2 percent from behind the arc. Offutt made all four of his attempts.

"Basketball is such a momentum game," said Bobcats coach John Groce. "The momentum Walt gave our team offensively when he made a couple shots carried over and throughout the second half."

Once the Bobcats took control, it did not bode well for the offensively-limited Bulls. They shot just 2-of-15 from the three and probably should have spent more time attacking the lane, as freshman point guard Anthony Collins did on a layup that cut it to 56-51 with 2:10 remaining.

USF played its typically tight defense on the ensuing possession and Cooper found himself still dribbling outside the perimeter with the shot clock winding down.

"I was actually about to shoot the three," Cooper said with his usual mischievous smile. "But I knew Coach wouldn't be happy with me taking a long three like that deep in the clock, so I just tried to attack."

He did, delivering a spin move that freed him for a dagger layup just before the horn, putting Ohio up 58-51 with 1:27 left. As USF called timeout, Cooper briefly raised his arms toward the Bobcats' cheering section, a recognition that the Sweet 16 was about to become reality.

With Lehigh's and Norfolk State's time in the spotlight ending after just one game, Ohio is now the closest thing left to a Cinderella. The only problem is, the Bobcats don't look, talk or play like little guys.

Groce, in his fourth year after a long stint as Thad Matta's assistant at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State, has built a program that's now won at least one postseason game in three straight years (two NCAAs and last year's CIT). Cooper is an elite-level point guard, Offutt skilled enough to have earned a scholarship to Ohio State and Kellogg obviously bred from big-time basketball genes.

But certainly, North Carolina and its lineup full of future NBA first-rounders will present a far stiffer challenge next week in St. Louis. The news that Tar Heels point guard Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist against Creighton and might not be available obviously works in the Bobcats' favor, particularly since point guard is their strong suit, but they certainly don't have bigs like UNC's Tyler Zeller and John Henson.

What they do have, however, is a coach and a staff that masterfully constructed gameplans that helped negate both Michigan's and USF's biggest strengths. The normally sharpshooting Wolverines went cold against Ohio. USF's usually stingy perimeter defense couldn't faze the Bobcats, either.

And the more people doubt them -- from recruiters to former coaches to the pundits predicting their games -- the better they seem to perform.

"I do think that guys have a chip on their shoulder," said Groce. "And I think our guys look forward to playing on the big stage against quality competition."

The next opportunity comes against the Tar Heels. Offutt, for one, has been waiting nearly two-and-half years for it.

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