Defense, maturity helps Ohio prove it isn't a fluke

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Ohio's D.J. Cooper dribbled and hopped. Then he started hopping and skipping past midcourt and tossed the ball toward the rafters of Bridgestone Arena.

Even before the ball finally returned to the floor, the celebration had begun. Ohio had defeated South Florida, heading to the Sweet 16.

Cooper, the junior point guard, did a little bit of everything in the Bobcats' 62-56 victory. He had 19 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals. He also scored five of Ohio’s final six points in the last two minutes, thwarting any comeback hopes South Florida was dreaming up.

The 13th-seeded Bobcats continue their best season in school history next week against No. 1 seeded North Carolina in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

Ohio is the first No. 13 seed to reach the Sweet 16 since 2006 and only the fifth in NCAA tournament history.

"This is what every kid dreams of, especially coming from Ohio University," Cooper said. "Not too many people, I don't think, would have picked us in the beginning of the year going to the Sweet 16."

But Cooper, along with guards Walter Offutt and Nick Kellogg, proved them wrong. Offutt had 21 points and four steals against USF, while Kellogg added nine points.

When Cooper was 7 or 8, he started playing basketball, his father, Donell Cooper said.

And ever since he began playing, his parents had him playing with older kids, at least two years older, even though he was small for his age. The odds were always against him because of his size, his father said.

"Playing against older kids gave me toughness and confidence, knowing I could play with older people," D.J. Cooper said. "I brought that to the college level."

Cooper is listed as 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, but his mother said those numbers are deceiving.

"He may be short physically, but he's 8-foot-5 mentally," Dionne Cooper said. "Sweet 16 -- all my goodness -- St. Louis here we come."

Ohio's unexpected march to the Sweet 16 actually was pretty simple: do not party like it's 2010.

Two years ago in their NCAA tournament opener, the Bobcats upended third-seeded Georgetown. Cooper had 23 points in that game as a freshman. The Bobcats admitted they celebrated that win a little too much and it showed two days later in a 15-point drubbing to Tennessee.

This time they were more reserved after knocking off No. 4-seed Michigan Friday. In the locker room they talked about unfinished business. About still having another game to play -- and win.

"This was more calculated," Dionne Cooper said after Sunday's win.

After Friday's victory, Ohio coach John Groce took away the player's cell phones. When he returned them on Saturday, Cooper had 121 messages awaiting him.

"Wow, what do you say?" Donell Cooper said. "I see a lot of change and maturity with the team since 2010. I think that played a big part tonight."

Groce has the Bobcats on a big-time roll. Ohio has won 17 of its last 19 games and defense has been the key. Under Groce, the Bobcats are 61-19 when allowing less than 70 points.

"I think the last two games are prime examples of why we hang our hat on defense," Ohio’s Andrew Nicholson said. "Because sometimes shots aren't falling, not rebounding particularly well, we can always go back to getting stops and that leads to most of our offenses on the transition end."

And that propelled Ohio to its best NCAA tournament run since the field was expanded to 64 teams.

"Obviously it's a big win for our program," Groce said. "So I'm happy for a lot of people, our families, our coaching staffs' families that sacrifice a lot, happy for the university.

"I'm happy for Athens [Ohio]. It's a special place. I'm happy for all of our former players, especially the ones I've had for the four years. Some of them were here today to watch the game. It shows you the loyalty they have to the program and they're as big a part of it as the guys that are on the team now."


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