Thursday, March 29, 2012

The "Other" Ohio

Throughout the years, numerous Ohio University fans and alumni have had to address a particular, often-repeated generalization with the following response: "No, we're not the Buckeyes."

The school's official name is "The Ohio University"
Founded in 1804, Ohio was the first university established in the Northwest Territory. The Athens institution has developed a strong academic reputation and boasts several top-tier learning programs. The Bobcats' athletic department has also experienced its share of success.

Despite such honors, it's the Big Ten neighbor located roughly 75 miles to the northwest -- Ohio State University -- that garners most of the national attention.

Ohio State has a more universally recognizable logo
With an enrollment of over 40,000 undergraduate students, OSU has evolved into the state's flagship university. Couple that with a powerful athletic program -- especially in big-money sports like football and men's basketball -- and the Ohio State Buckeyes remain a household name.

As a result, Ohio lives in the shadow of Ohio State, competing in the mid-major Mid-American Conference and enjoying occasional, fleeting success in both football and basketball. Every once in awhile, however, the Bobcats are thrust into the national spotlight.

 Many MAC schools fly under-the-radar, compared to high-major counterparts
The 2011-12 Ohio basketball team enjoyed some record-setting success during the regular season and MAC Tournament. Their 27 wins were a program-best, junior point guard D.J. Cooper set the Bobcats' all-time assists record, and the team ranked among the nation's leaders in steals-per-game.

It all culminated in a thrilling, one-point MAC Championship victory over Akron and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Bobcats were handed a #13-seed in the Midwest region, and sent to Nashville, Tennessee for a 2nd round matchup against the #4 Michigan Wolverines.

 Ohio head coach John Groce holds up the MAC Championship trophy (Photo courtesy: Cleveland Plain Dealer)

The tournament pairing was significant for many in Ohio. As Ohio State's chief rival, the Wolverines drew the ire of nearly all Buckeyes' fans. Legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes used to refer to Michigan as "That School Up North."

Michigan has never been looked upon favorably in Ohio

Those in Athens, meanwhile, felt disrespected by Wolverines' football coach Brady Hoke. He unwittingly stoked the fire of quite a few by continually referring to Ohio State as "Ohio" in the days leading up to Michigan's football game against the Buckeyes last November, as if Ohio University didn't exist.

Whether those feelings of slight trickled down to the Ohio basketball team is anyone's guess, but Bobcats' fans seemed intent on informing Michigan of their presence.

Michigan football coach Brady Hoke's words caught the Bobcats' attention (Photo courtesy:

Prior to the Friday evening session in Nashville on March 16th, fans dressed in green-and-white and maize-and-blue intermingled on the Bridgestone Arena concourse, watching various TV's as NCAA Tournament action played out elsewhere.

The crowds gathered and grew as 15th-seeded Norfolk State shocked 2nd-seeded Missouri in the West region. It was probably the last time that Wolverines' and Bobcats' fans would agree on something for the rest of the night -- with many cheering the 86-84 upset win for the Spartans.

Could another Cinderella story develop in this very arena?

 Opening tip-off between Ohio and Michigan in Nashville

The game started with Ohio and Michigan matching each other, shot-for-shot. After five minutes of play, the Bobcats and Wolverines were tied, 9-9. The green-clad Ohio fans felt encouraged by the early performance, since it appeared their team wasn't backing down from the Big Ten foe.

Despite the seeding disparity, this particular March Madness matchup featured two high-end point guards. Ohio's D.J. Cooper averaged 14.7 points and 5.7 assists-per-game, while Michigan's freshman sensation, Trey Burke (who incidentally, is from Columbus, home of Ohio State), averaged nearly 15 points-per-game.

 The point-guard matchup between D.J. Cooper and Trey Burke was one to watch

Both teams grasped for the upper-hand, but they seemed to be evenly-matched. With 7:56 remaining in the 1st half, Ohio held a slim 22-20 advantage. During the media timeout, those wearing maize-and-blue nervously sang along to the Michigan fight song, "Hail to the Victors." Bobcats' fans, meanwhile, stood and applauded their team's effort.

 The Michigan band plays "Hail to the Victors" during a timeout

During the next few minutes, Ohio made its move, going on a 10-2 run to build a 10-point lead. An acrobatic shot by junior guard Walter Offutt brought most of the 11,625 in attendance to their feet, bolstering the Bobcats' fan base. Michigan then committed a major faux pas, fouling Cooper on a three-point attempt and giving him three free throws -- all of which were converted. With 3:56 left in the 1st half, the Wolverines were reeling.

Walter Offutt's off-balance shot sparked the Bridgestone Arena crowd

Sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. would keep Michigan in the game, tallying 10 points during the initial 20 minutes. As both teams headed to the locker room for halftime, #13 Ohio held a 35-29 lead over the #4 Wolverines. Bobcats' fans were feeling pretty good about their chances, even though the outcome was far from decided.

Ohio was 20 minutes away from a possible upset

As the 2nd half got into full-swing, Michigan launched numerous attempts to take control of the action and force Ohio to relinquish the lead. The Bobcats proved resilient, however, maintaining a 42-37 edge with 15:08 left in regulation.

With Ohio still in front, those inside Bridgestone Arena who didn't have a particular rooting interest started to vocally pull for the underdog. Suddenly, the numerous Wolverines' fans in attendance were outnumbered. Not only was Michigan playing against a tough Bobcats' squad, but they now had to contend with a suddenly partisan crowd.

 Most of Nashville started backing the Bobcats as the game continued

Watching from my seat in Section 328, the Green-and-White continued to withstand the Wolverines' push. With 9:20 remaining, the Bobcats led 55-48. Could Ohio, the MAC school that upended Georgetown in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, pull off its second big upset in three years?

Cooper led the Bobcats' scorers with 21 points against Michigan

Michigan wasn't going down without a fight, however. Led by Burke and Evan Smotrycz, the Wolverines clawed their way back into the game, only trailing 60-57 with 5:26 left in the 2nd half. Suddenly, the maize-and-blue clad fans could make their collective voice heard once again, urging their team to complete the comeback.

Evan Smotrycz drives to the hoop against Reggie Keely

Knowing what was at stake, both teams clamped down defensively. Over the next four minutes, Michigan and Ohio combined for only six points, with the Bobcats clinging to a 63-60 lead.

  Tough defense defined the final few minutes

The Bridgestone Arena crowd stood for the final minute of regulation. Some clapped, some yelled encouragement, and others pensively placed their hands over their mouths -- seemingly frozen by the tension of the moment.

Every Michigan shot drew a collective gasp from both sides, while every Ohio possession seemed to take forever. For Bobcats' fans, the clock could not move quickly enough.

The three-point lead was not enough for Ohio fans' comfort

With :17.7 left, the Wolverines had the ball, still trailing 63-60. Smotrycz -- one of the Michigan stars of the 2nd half -- dribbled near the sideline. As he approached the three-point line, he suddenly lost the basketball! A scramble between maize- and green-uniformed players ensued, with Offutt coming up with the loose ball for Ohio.

Offutt pounces on the critical Michigan turnover

The Bobcats' fan base erupted with delight as Offutt was fouled with :06.8 remaining. All the junior guard had to do was make one at least free throw, and the game was -- for all intents and purposes -- over.

Offutt -- a transfer from Ohio State -- calmly strode to the foul line as everyone inside the arena stood. With only Michigan fans making noise to try and cause a distraction, Offutt swished the first shot. The majority of the Bridgestone Arena crowd roared in approval. He then sank the second free throw for good measure, and those in the Ohio cheering section began to high-five and hug each other in celebration.

Offutt ices the game for the Bobcats

As time ran out, the upset bid became a reality. #13 Ohio -- the Bobcats, not the Buckeyes -- had knocked off #4 Michigan, 65-60, eliminating the Wolverines from the NCAA Tournament and ending their season.

March Madness at its finest

Wearing downtrodden expressions on their faces, the Michigan players left the floor after shaking hands with their opponent. Meanwhile, the Ohio band played "Stand Up and Cheer," the school's fight song, as Bobcats' fans and players soaked in the ecstatic moment.

Within minutes of the game's conclusion, my cell phone was filled with congratulatory messages from friends and family members. There's always a special significance when your alma mater -- the underdog -- comes out on top.

Ohio fans celebrate the victory

It was ironic, to say the least, that Michigan and Ohio were matched up in the NCAA Tournament so soon after Hoke's comments. In the grand scheme of things, however, the words mean very little. After all, two members of the Wolverines' basketball coaching staff had previous ties to the Bobcats, so there was undoubtedly some familiarity on that end.

Still, everything in college basketball is magnified during this time of year. A mere story in November or December becomes a legendary tale in March. It only enhances the Madness.

 Ohio's win over Michigan provided a new March Madness memory for me

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