NASHVILLE — Ohio Coach John Groce, a former Butler assistant, spent last year’s NCAA tournament admiring the Bulldogs’ run to the national title game from afar, repeatedly talking with his players about the togetherness the Bulldogs showed throughout.
One year later, Groce’s Bobcats are in the early stages of scripting a similar story. The 13th-seeded Bobcats beat 12th-seeded South Florida, 62-56, on Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16, marking the first time the school from Athens has won two tournament games since 1964.
The Bobcats advanced to a Midwest Region semifinal game against top-seeded North Carolina, which might be without star point guard Kendall Marshall, who injured his wrist in Sunday’s win over Creighton.
“I’m close with Kendall. I am going to shoot him a text,” Ohio guard Stevie Taylor said. “I don’t want to see anyone hurt. I’d rather he be out there.”
Ohio (29-7) has beaten two power-conference teams defined by different styles. After hanging on to edge Michigan, one of the nation’s best three-point shooting teams, the Bobcats managed enough scoring to outlast a South Florida team that relies on length and athleticism to stifle teams with defense and a deliberate tempo.
The Bobcats countered South Florida’s height with aggressive on-ball defense by Taylor, hot shooting by Walter Offutt (21 points) and, in the end, a clutch basket by leading scorer D.J. Cooper, who scored 19 on Sunday. With 1 minute 35 seconds to play, Cooper sank a 12-foot jump shot as the shot clock wound down to push the lead to seven points and rouse Ohio fans from their seats.
In four seasons under Groce, Ohio has gone 62-19 when holding teams to fewer than 70 points, and the Bulls (22-14) did not come close to reaching that threshold.
South Florida, meantime, had held its previous 12 opponents to fewer than 60 points before Ohio eclipsed that mark in the final minute Sunday.
“They are as good defensively as any team we have played this year,” Groce said. “The start of the second half, I thought that was the key. We were able to make some shots.”
The Bulls had never won an NCAA tournament game before beating California in this season’s opening-round game in Dayton. The Bulls then rallied to beat Temple on Friday after shooting just 11 percent in the first half.
Early on against Ohio, South Florida found offensive success by leaning on forward Gus Gilchrist, the well-chronicled 6-foot-10 senior from Clinton who had signed with three schools during his winding basketball career. After asking out of his letter-of-intent with Virginia Tech, Gilchrist signed with Maryland in November 2007.
But after it was learned that Gilchrist’s personal trainer would not be considered for a strength-coach position at Maryland, Gilchrist left and wound up at South Florida — along with his personal trainer.
Gilchrist scored eight first-half points Sunday, making 3 of 4 field-goal attempts against the shorter Bobcats. With an average height of nearly 78 inches, the Bulls are one of the nation’s tallest teams. They exploited Ohio’s lack of size by scoring 16 of their 27 first-half points in the paint.
Most of those baskets came by way of dunks or layups by interior players. After a 10-0 South Florida run gave the Bulls a four-point advantage, Ohio turned to an even smaller group, playing a lineup that included just one player taller than 6-6.
The Bulls held the Bobcats without a field goal for nearly nine minutes as the pace grew more deliberate. South Florida led by six points at halftime despite making 1 of 9 shots from three-point range.
But the Bobcats found enough resolve in the second half to secure the victory, much like another mid-major program Groce had his eye on throughout last year’s NCAA tournament.
“This is a big win for our program,” Groce said. “I am happy for Athens; it is a special place. Our guys played with such an extraordinary toughness.”