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Sports Column: Bobcats' sweet season ends on sour note
Even as the underdog, the sting of defeat is long-lasting
ST. LOUIS — By all conventional wisdom, Ohio was not supposed to beat North Carolina.
The Tar Heels started three all-ACC forwards. The Bobcats only play two at a time. North Carolina started four players at least 6-foot-7. Ohio started two. And a third-string point guard at a fine institution of basketball such as the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, should still measure up to most starting guards in the Mid-American Conference.
But that did not take away the pain the Bobcats felt at the end of 45 minutes when the scoreboard favored the Tar Heels 73-65.
“Awful proud of our guys for how they fought when things weren’t going well in the game,” coach John Groce said. “But as I told them in the locker room, there’s nothing I can say to them at this point that can take away the sting of getting beat this way.”
North Carolina’s dominance was apparent early in the game. The Tar Heels jumped out to a 26-11 lead 13 minutes into the game. Tyler Zeller proved to be much more mobile than either 7-footer the Bobcats faced in MAC play. Harrison Barnes helped to run the offense to take the pressure off freshman Stilman White, and visions of a colossal thwacking dashed through the heads of many Bobcat fans at home.
But at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Ohio was calm. Coach John Groce’s frustration was with his team’s inability to sink open shots, not at the scoreboard.
Slowly, the Bobcats worked for their points. They tried to be more efficient with their possessions because the rebounding battle was a contest they would not win. The defense stopped the North Carolina offensive juggernaut from scoring at will. And at the half, the Bobcats trailed only by seven, with neither team reaching 30 points.
A sloppy start to the second half hindered Ohio’s comeback, but Walter Offutt caught fire from the corner to boost the Bobcats. Ohio took the lead as Offutt capped his career-high 26 points. But on a night when D.J. Cooper could not find his shooting rhythm, perhaps the team needed 27 from Offutt.
With 25 seconds to play, Offutt made a tough basket and was fouled by Harrison Barnes, but Offutt missed the ensuing free throw, and the game stayed tied through the end of regulation. And in overtime, it was all Tar Heels.
“This feels terrible. One free throw away,” Offutt said. “Of the weight on this team, I’ve got to take my responsibility. It feels terrible letting my team down in that sort of way.”
Groce was quick to remove that blame from Offutt, whom he has called a “culture changer” throughout the postseason. And there were plenty of other plays that could have swung the game.
Jon Smith missed a point-blank dunk early in the second half, and instead of a two-point deficit, the Bobcats soon trailed by 10. Reggie Keely missed a couple of buckets in the paint. Ivo Baltic watched as about four shots rimmed out. Even if one of Cooper’s 17 missed field goals found its way through the orange halo, the game could have ended differently.
“Obviously they end up surviving and advancing, and it never feels good in a tournament when you have to go home,” Groce said.
North Carolina almost lost the game, but it earned the win in the end. A staggering plus-33 rebound margin offset 24 Tar Heel turnovers, and Zeller poured on the offense to keep his collegiate career alive. White was effective in his first collegiate start, contributing six assists and no turnovers.
“I think we feel like we got away with one,” Zeller said. “Ohio played a better game. They hit a lot of shots.”
Coach Roy Williams admitted that his team was exhausted and relieved at the end of the game, but he hopes it will find some positive energy heading into Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup.
And with time, Ohio will realize some positives from this season, too. The Bobcats posted 29 wins to shatter the program record. Only the 2001-2002 Kent State squad had more wins in MAC history. D.J. Cooper broke Ohio’s career assist record earlier this season, and he became the all-time steals leader Friday night.
And who knows what might happen when the Bobcats return 100 percent of their minutes next year.
Even amid the postgame blues that Offutt felt in St. Louis, perhaps that fact will help him find some harmonic undertones in the days to come.
“It’s just a humbling experience to know that we came together as a group to achieve what we did,” he said.