It started with a surprising overtime victory in Muncie, Ind. It ended with cutting down the nets in Cleveland.
In between, there was plenty of excitement, as the Ohio men’s basketball team carved its way through the Mid-American Conference Tournament and punched its ticket to the Big Dance for the first time since 2005. Ohio is slated to play Georgetown in the Midwest Bracket on Thursday. Ohio is a 14th seed while Georgetown, which lost the Big East final in a heartbreaker to West Virginia on Saturday, is a third seed.
The unlikely championship run took everything the ninth-seeded Bobcats had, as they beat Ball State, Kent State, Miami and Akron to become the lowest seed to ever win the MAC tournament. The climax came Saturday night as the Bobcats pulled off the 81-75 upset over Akron in a game that had 13 ties and 24 lead changes.
Each win came in different fashion.
The Bobcats (21-14) needed a late-game comeback against Ball State. Then they dominated Kent State and won an offensively sloppy game against Miami. The championship game was just an all-around battle. The Bobcats showed grit and determination in the back-and-forth game, countering everything Akron had, and winning a tournament where nobody had given them a chance.
The driving force behind Ohio’s run was junior guard Armon Bassett, who played out of his mind during Ohio’s unforgettable seven-day stretch, setting a new tournament record with 116 points and 49 free throws to become the tournament MVP.
He did everything for the Bobcats, averaging 29 points and hitting big shot after big shot.
Bassett showed MAC voters that they made a big mistake in not making him a first- or second-team all-league section, excelling in every game of the tournament.
The Bobcats knew they would only go as far as Bassett — the team’s best player and unquestioned leader — took them.
He had the big-game experience. He knew what it took to make the NCAA Tournament, from his days as an Indiana Hooiser, and he proved that coach John Groce made the right decision in bringing him to Athens.
This week turned Bassett from a hyped transfer to a legend.
His protégé, freshmen point-guard D.J. Cooper, took after Bassett and showed up on the big stage. Cooper played his best game of the tournament against Akron Saturday night, scoring 23 points, making a key defensive play in overtime, and knocking down clutch foul shots with under 29 seconds left in overtime.
Just like he has all season, Cooper played like a player well beyond his age and was not rattled by the environment.
While Bassett and Cooper shined in the championship game, junior forward DeVaughn Washington was the most electrifying player of the tournament. His rim-rattling dunks and aggressive defense were key for the Bobcats, and his energy gave the Bobcats just what they needed at certain times during the tournament.
Shadowed behind the impressive play of Bassett, Cooper and Washington were solid efforts from some key role-players on Ohio’s roster.
Winning the tournament required something from every player on the Ohio squad, as the Bobcats put together their best all-around effort of the season against Akron. Everyone contributed in different ways.
Lone senior Kenneth van Kempen played with an unquestioned will to win, scoring 10 points, grabbing nine rebounds, and hitting clutch late-game foul shots in the championship game.
Freshmen Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely both played tough inside, providing key minutes against Akron after Washington got into early foul trouble.
Asown Sayles made clutch layups late in the championship game and was a key defensive stopper. Tommy Freeman had a quiet night against Akron, but throughout the tournament he provided instant offense with deep three-pointers.
Each player had a role. Each player stuck to that role with perfection.
The NCAA Tournament bid certainly saves a season that seemed all but lost earlier in the year. The Bobcats had plenty of times to quit on the season, but they never did.
Sophomore Steven Coleman broke his hand early in the season and was lost for the year. Washington missed five games because of suspension, and Bassett was sent to the locker room by Groce during the second half of the Toledo game for a lack of effort. Then freshman Jay Kinney was kicked off the team after getting arrested.
Despite the problems, the Bobcats never packed it in.
Washington and Bassett came back with renewed motivation and elevated their games to another level. In the face of adversity, the team bonded together.
They took on an “us against the world” mentality, and that proved the perfect approach once it came time for the MAC Tournament. In a tournament where nobody thought Ohio had a chance, after a regular season where they never seemed to live up to their potential, Ohio came through at exactly the right time.
They only listened to themselves, and proved that is all they needed.