BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Sure, Ben Vander Plas celebrated. How could he not? His No. 13 seed Ohio Bobcats had just knocked off No. 4 seed and defending national champion Virginia.
So, this 6-foot-8, 230-pound tower of a man raced onto the court with other members of his team, jumped around wildly, screamed at the top of his lungs and then, almost like a light switch, turned off the celebration.
He approached the opposing coach, UVA’s Tony Bennett, opened his giant wingspan and embraced him. How could he not? Vander Plas’s full name is Bennett.
“The Bennett family is where my name comes from,” Vander Plas says. “It’s meant a lot to my family over the years. That was a pretty cool moment.”
Vander Plas is a big reason why the Bobcats took down the 2019 national title winners, 62–58, here in Assembly Hall. Trailing for much of the game and suffocating under UVA’s slogging style of play, Ohio grabbed control with eight minutes left when Vander Plas scored nine consecutive points—sinking back to back three-pointers and careening a pair layups off the backboard.
There were a few tense moments down the stretch, but when Ben Roderick knocked down a trey as the shot clock buzzed, the Bobcats took a seven-point lead into the final minute, securing yet another victory in the Big Dance as a big underdog. Ohio, in fact, joined Richmond as the only men's programs to win three first-round games as a No. 13 seed or lower. The Bobcats beat Michigan as a No. 13 seed in 2012 and Georgetown as a No. 14 seed in 2010.
Meanwhile, Bennett and the Hoos saw their COVID-19-stricken, late-season path here end in disappointment. A positive test bounced them from the ACC tournament. Because they were forced to quarantine, the Cavaliers didn’t travel to Indianapolis until Friday and practiced for the first time in a week Saturday morning. And while it nursed a slim lead for much of the game, Virginia collapsed offensively during a late-game slide that served as its undoing.
If you’re keeping track at home, UVA’s last three trips to the NCAA tournament have resulted in quite the ride. In 2018, the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. In 2019, UVA won the entire tournament, and now, in 2021, another first-round exit, this time as a No. 4 seed.
“I’ve faced such joy in this tournament, and I‘ve faced the heartache too,” Bennett said afterward. “You have to be able to accept them both and know at the end of your career this doesn’t define you beyond what it should.”
So, out goes Virginia and in stays Ohio, not to be confused with Ohio State, of course. The No. 2 seed Buckeyes were bounced out Friday in a stunning upset by Oral Roberts.
The Bobcats (17–7) are an interesting group. Just two weeks ago, they finished fifth in the MAC before reeling off three wins in three days in the conference tournament to punch their ticket here. But maybe they’re better than their league record (9–5) might show. They lost by two to Illinois in November and at one point, they went three weeks without playing a game because of COVID-19 issues.
“We never let it get us down,” Vander Plas said. “That resilience is showing now.”
Saturday’s outing was more emotional for this redshirt sophomore than, maybe, anyone else inside this sparsely populated arena in Bloomington. His father, Dean Vander Plas, was college teammates at Wisconsin-Green Bay with Tony Bennett. They both played for Tony’s father, Dick Bennett, and were responsible for Green Bay’s run to the men's NCAA tournament in 1991.
In fact, that year, Dean Vander Plas scored 17 points in a first-round loss to Michigan State with Dick Bennett as his coach. On Saturday, his son scored 17 points in a first-round win over a team coaches by Dick’s son.
Told this, Ben’s eyes widened.
“I scored the same amount as my dad? That’s unbelievable,” he said. “A lot being said about the basketball gods. That’s crazy.”
The basketball gods sure continue to find ways to entertain us all. The last team to cut down the nets as champions—nearly two years ago now—was the last team to arrive at this year’s tournament and is one of the highest seeds to be bounced out first, done in by a player named after their own coach.
After the two embraced, Tony Bennett asked Ben where in the crowd his father was. Ben pointed toward a seat a few rows from up front the court and behind the Ohio bench. Bennett waved. His old teammate waved back.
“[Ben] did what his old man would do when I played with him,” Bennett said. “He made key plays. Happy for him and hurting for our guys.”
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