NASHVILLE — After struggling with offensive blues for much of the first half, Ohio traded them in for the more positive kind: those that signal the sweet melody of St. Louis, Missouri.
The No. 13 seed Bobcats climbed back from a six-point halftime deficit to defeat No. 12 South Florida 62-56 in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Ohio advances to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the tournament expanded to a 60-plus-team format and will face top-seeded North Carolina Friday in St. Louis.
Ohio (29-7) moved into a second-place tie for wins in a season by a Mid-American Conference school. Only the 2001-2002 Kent State team, led by current South Florida coach Stan Heath, had more wins than coach John Groce’s Bobcats.
“It’s a big win for our program, advancing to the Sweet 16,” Groce said. “Obviously my hat’s off to our guys, who played with such an extraordinary toughness. In the end, that was the difference in the game.”
After grabbing a quick 5-0 lead, Ohio’s offense sputtered in the first half as South Florida slowed the pace to a crawl. The Bulls (22-14) generated most of its offense in the paint while holding Ohio’s big men to a combined two points in the first half.
But the Bobcats came out composed in the second half and erased the Bulls’ six-point edge in the first four minutes after the break.
Ohio stayed in the game and took the lead thanks to redshirt junior guard Walter Offutt, who jump-started the Bobcats with five points in an 11-second span.
Offutt was dribbling near midcourt when South Florida guard Victor Rudd Jr. grabbed Offutt’s jersey and was whistled for a flagrant foul. Offutt sank both free throws and drained a 3-pointer on Ohio’s ensuing possession to tie the game.
“Coaches told us to come out swinging from the start,” Offutt said. “We went out, played aggressively and hit some shots.”
The Bobcats also pulled off another five-point possession later in the half to tie the game once more. The Bulls’ Jawanza Poland was called for a technical foul when he hung on the rim after completing an alley-oop with 9:25 to play. That put South Florida on top 42-37, but Ohio guard Nick Kellogg made both technical free throws and then sank a wide-open 3-pointer to even the score.
Two minutes later, Ohio had the lead for good.
“It certainly changed momentum,” Heath said. “I’m not even mad that we dunked it. What did bother me was all year long we didn’t let one play bother us, and we did (this time).
“I haven’t seen a wide-open shot from an opponent in two months. The response is not normal for us.”
Ohio’s confidence only grew as the game came to a close. In the final seconds, D.J. Cooper raised his arms to pump up the Bobcat followers who sojourned to Nashville, and coach John Groce raised his arm in victory as Ohio defeated a team from a “major” conference for the second time in three nights. The Bobcats had not beaten two such teams in one season since 2007-2008.
“I think the last two games are prime examples of why we hang our hat on our defense,” Kellogg said. “We can always go back to getting stops, and that leads to most of our offense.”
Offutt led all scorers with 21 points, while junior point guard D.J. Cooper added 19 and seven assists. Rudd and freshman point guard Anthony Collins paced South Florida with 13 points apiece.
South Florida finishes the season tied for the most wins in a season in program history. It picked up its first two tournament wins in the First Four and Second Round.
Next up for Ohio is a date with No. 1 North Carolina, which beat Creighton in the third round to advance to the Sweet 16. The Tar Heels will be the heavy favorites but might be playing without point guard Kendall Marshall, who fractured his wrist during Sunday’s game.
The only MAC team to make it to the Elite Eight under the tournament’s 60-plus-team format was Heath’s Golden Flashes in 2002. The Bobcats will try to match Kent State’s tournament run and win record next Friday.
"They are resilient. That’s a very, very good basketball team,” Heath said. “You never know in this tournament what can happen."
OHIO 62, South Florida 56
— The Bobcats shot 50 percent on 3-pointers.
— Offutt: game-high 21 points, 7-for-9 on field goals.
— Ohio advances to a third tournament game for the first time since 1964.