It hardly seems fair. The Bobcats of The Ohio University are the only one of us left in the Sweet Sixteen. OK, I coined that name because I'm feeling emotional these days -- getting knee deep in March Madness as a Mid-Majority fan opens you up to more hurt the more you embrace the experience. It also doesn't help that I got used to our season lasting all the way the last two years. It almost seems too bad that Xavier lives above The Red Line. I still feel the impulse once in awhile to think of Xavier and Gonzaga as mid-majors. But no. It's all on the Bobcats. All of Mid-Majority are Bobcat fans when they take on the Tar Heels, and it seems like a terrible burden.
It can make one downright emotional, as it did when I started seeing tweets from Kansas and North Carolina fans last weekend thanking Norfolk State and Lehigh for knocking off Missouri and Duke respectively. Even if there were only a few such tweets, we all know these two fan bases were rooting hard for the mid-major underdog in these contests and were ecstatic at the results. I even suppose if we were in their shoes we'd probably do the same thing. But there's something so unsavory about it. For one thing, they don't really love the underdog nearly so much as they hate their rivals. Having them root for us feels a lot like being used. The more I thought about it, the more sickened I became -- to the point of rooting for Purdue to beat Kansas. In my defense, Robbie Hummel graduated from my high school, but as I reflected back on it, I realized that I was guilty of the flip-side of the same coin: I don't really love Purdue nearly so much as I hated Kansas at the time. I rooted for Creighton over North Carolina, but I would have rooted that way regardless of what happened to Duke. Just more of the Madness that makes March the month that it is.
As soon as I knew I would be able to attend this game, which took place in the same metropolitan area where I currently reside, I went online to purchase my ticket. The only thing left were complete packages for both Friday and Sunday, but I decided I was going to see Ohio take on North Carolina one way or the other, and if the Bobcats managed to win, I would be sorry I didn't already have my Sunday ticket anyway. Deep down inside, I think I was bracing for the inevitable smack down, but I managed to block that feeling out of my mind. Against all conventional wisdom, I was going to be All-In. I was going to commit to the Bobcats, at least for this weekend.
The last time I was in the Edward Jones Dome was 10 years ago, when the first and second rounds were held here, and then it was to see my Valparaiso Crusaders take on Tubby Smith's Kentucky Wildcats. Then I bought my ticket through the VU alumni office, so once Valpo was eliminated by the Wildcats, I was only out the money for the first session. Our section sat in the makeshift stands that were erected on top of the playing field where the St. Louis Rams normally operate on Sunday afternoons. Facing the court -- and close enough in height -- we saw stands immediately behind the opposite side and could imagine we were in a regular basketball arena, as long as we didn't turn around to notice the large part of the football stadium that was going unused. For this game, the majority of the Bobcat fans occupied the same section.
As for me, I was way up in section 338, behind the Bobcat basket, with the shot clock perfectly placed so as to obscure my view (my seat was literally centered behind the basket). Half the time I couldn't tell if a basket was made until I saw the other team taking the ball out of bounds. I didn't exactly need binoculars, but I was also much further away. The shot clock and game clock perched above the basket were small enough that I had to stare intently if I wanted to read what they said. I was up high enough that the opposite basket was in plain view.
To my right sat a few Kansas fans as I took my seat about 20 minutes prior to tip-off. You could say I had a mid-major seat, with all the major seats taken by the much more committed fans of each of the four teams. I was taken aback when I heard the Tar Heel pep band begin playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. This may sound silly, but it seemed like a non sequitur to me. Nirvana always seemed like a Mid-Major band -- certainly no Rolling Stones or Beatles or Who, but hardly a cupcake band either. No pushover, Nirvana certainly had its one shining moment in Rock 'n Roll's Big Dance, taking the Rock scene by storm. They were the kind of band not to be taken lightly. And here a mid-major anthem had been co-opted by the pep band for a power conference school. Just one more reason -- albeit perhaps an irrational one -- to hope for an emphatic upset.
When the teams emerged from their locker rooms for the final time, I discovered that the section to my left was filthy with Tar Heel fans. There were a couple of them right in front of me. When Ohio called a timeout at the 14:50 mark after 5 minutes of non-stop action, and less than a minute later there was the first media timeout, I was amused that the two Tar Heel fans were flummoxed by the concept of media timeouts, considering that their team plays on TV all the time. As for scoreboard information, that was to my right, along the ribbon board. Time outs, fouls, score, and time remaining were all there, with the center video board available for those who felt like paying 85 bucks to sit in a humongous living room and watch the game on TV with thousands of perfect strangers.
A few minutes into the game, North Carolina already led 12-4, and I began to prepare myself for the end of the line. I was not feeling emotional about that, for this is our usual fate in a game like this, even with Kendall Marshall out. As I watched the early going, I couldn't help -- from my perch at least -- feeling like North Carolina had too much of everything and Ohio had too little. The Bobcats couldn't hit anything from the perimeter. Some shots missed badly, but others rimmed out or went in and came back out again. They scored a couple of close-in baskets, but got swatted several other times when driving for a layup. The Tar Heels did not exactly bury Ohio, but it looked like they were going to toy with the Bobcats all game long.
Coming out of the under-8 timeout, something finally clicked for Ohio. Down 11 at the time, Nick Kellog finally hit a 3 -- Ohio's first made perimeter shot of the game. He drew a charge on the other end. Slowly but surely, they started to close the gap. During a stoppage in play, I reflected back on the game so far. It seemed to me that Ohio had been playing their style, that they had not been psyched out by the number one seed from the ACC. The only problem was that their shots were not falling, and all the tipped passes and loose balls were going North Carolina's way. On the other hand, they were able to steal the ball on several occasions, and cut a double-digit lead down to 6 before ending the half down 7, 29-22. But North Carolina was getting steals too.
The second half was the most excruciating half of basketball I think I have ever witnessed. For the first eight minutes of the half, the Bobcats kept drawing close and the Tar Heels kept reasserting themselves. A steal after a 3 led to a breakaway, only to see the ball wedged in between the rim and the backboard with the possession arrow favoring North Carolina. Before you could say, "Tar Heels suck", a four point deficit ballooned back out to a 10 point deficit and Ohio took another timeout. "It was a ballgame for a second there," I wrote in my notes. But even as North Carolina was drawing fouls left and right, they were hitting only 2 out of 6 free throws. The Bobcats didn't lose their cool. For some reason, the Tar Heels began to lose theirs. A bad pass led to a 3 on the other end. On the next possession, North Carolina turned it over again. Ohio drained another 3 to bring it back to a 4 point deficit. The poor perimeter shooting seemed to be a thing of the past. North Carolina had to use a timeout to avoid a 5-second call, then after the timeout a cross court pass was too high for Stillman White to corral it and the Bobcats drained yet another 3. The teams traded two-point baskets, Ohio scoring on a reverse layup. At the under 12 media timeout, it was 39-38 North Carolina, and from then on, it was a barn burner. I wrote in my notes, "If the Tar Heels are still toying with them, they might want to stop now."
At this point the action picked up so much that I couldn't keep up with my notes. With 4:35 to go, it was Ohio 54 North Carolina 53. At times like these, I sometimes reach for a war analogy, and somehow my mind went back to the early Civil War, specifically McClellan vs. Robert E. Lee. The former had ten times the firepower and should have been able to decimate Lee's undermanned army easily, but as Lincoln would wearily quip, "He can't do the math." For whatever reason, McClellan wasted his huge advantage over and over again, and Lee masterfully used what McClellan gave him to make life difficult. Tonight, North Carolina was McClellan and Ohio was Lee. The Tar Heels were taller, stronger, more athletic -- so it seemed to me from my perch -- but it meant nothing if they weren't able to use their advantage to crush the enemy.
After years of watching the game of basketball, I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to tell whether a team's troubles can be attributed to their own bad play or to the other team's better play. Bill James once watched his child play with a new toy -- a wind-up baseball player who swings a bat. It had a crank and a button. You wound up the crank as far as it would go, then you could push the button to make the player swing the bat, but eventually, pushing the button did nothing without winding up the toy again. His little boy would joyfully push the button until it stopped working and then exclaim, "Ballpayer boke!" James found it a metaphor for our time: we live in a one-switch world. We insist on boiling everything down to one binary state. Anything more disturbs our sensibilities. If one team beats the other, it's either bad play by the loser or good play by the winner. I have come to conclude that it's almost always a mixture of both. It seems too knee-jerk to conclude that North Carolina was blowing the game and that it had nothing to do with how well Ohio was playing. I prefer to be more open-minded than that. I can't help feeling like the Tar Heels weren't playing up to their potential -- and even without Kendall Marshall, it seems like they had plenty of weapons to easily win -- but I find it difficult to dismiss the possibility that the Bobcats had something to say about that. As the Bobcats extended their lead to 2 and then to 4, I wondered, "Who has ice in their veins now?"
Another steal led to another breakaway, but at times like these, that advantage in firepower rescued the Tar Heels, this time in a very crippling fashion. One moment it looked like Ohio was going to extend its lead to 6, the next moment Harrison Barnes was completing a 4 point possession to tie the score. The second of two free throws missed, but as often happened in the second half, the lively rebound was easily tracked down by the taller Heels, and Barnes drained the 3. Back came the Bobcats to take a 2 point lead, back came the Heels to tie it up at 59. They took a one point lead after an over the back foul on Ohio, but Ohio relentlessly retook the lead with a close-in jumper. An air ball, of all things, by North Carolina gave Ohio the ball with 1:11 to go up by 1. That sense of the inevitable smack-down I had in the early going was now a distant memory.
I didn't feel like I was riding a roller coaster of emotion. I felt like I was locked in to see history being made and was not going to miss a bit of it. A drive to the hoop was rejected by Tyler Zeller, one of the few Tar Heels who seemed to consistently use his advantage throughout the game. The Ohio player doubled over in pain, but no foul was called. I would have gone ballistic had it not been for the Ohio coach who vigorously motioned his player to get back down on defense. Just as David Cone in a Mets uniform once allowed 2 runs to score while he argued with the first base umpire, North Carolina was able to turn a 5-on-4 situation into a 3 point basket from beyond the arc to go in front, 63-61 with 39 seconds to go. Once again, Ohio gathered itself and drove the lane with about 23 seconds to go, this time making the basket and drawing the foul, to the delight of all Ohio fans and other rooters. With the score tied, Ohio had it within their grasp to close the deal, but missed the free throw. With 15 seconds to go and the ball in the front court, North Carolina called a timeout.
The way the Tar Heels had come alive at just the right times with 3 pointers, I was worried it was going to end that way. I thought the opportunity had been missed. I was close, but not quite yet, for North Carolina ran a set that bewildered commentators and lost the ball with about 5 seconds to go. An Ohio player managed to launch one from half court a la Gordon Hayward -- coming almost as close to ending the game right there -- and we had overtime.
Boy, when you add up all the opportunities missed, it was almost a harbinger of the overtime, completely dominated by the Tar Heels. Finally, Ohio came undone. Having climbed the impossible mountain, extending themselves beyond all measure, they finally ran out of chances. Finally, chalk asserted itself. For a brief moment, the Heels let up again and I thought Ohio was going to make another come back, but this time it was not to be. With the realization that they had narrowly escaped a devastating upset, North Carolina finally clamped down in the overtime and closed the deal.
Within days, I was seeing the familiar commentary about how order had been restored to the basketball universe. I am confident that the same columnists who whined like crybabies the past two years about how the Final Four absolutely sucked will rejoice at this year's Final Four. That's fine. They should get their way every once in awhile. Meanwhile, with Ohio's defeat, Mid-Majority's NCAA tournament run is finally over, with about as much heartbreak as one can possibly jam into one game. McClellan did give way to Grant, after all -- and he was able to do the math. Almost doesn't count in basketball. Just ask Gordon Hayward.
Kansas and North Carolina State take the court for shoot around. I muse: should I stay for this game? I paid my money, but somehow it feels like I'm done here.
NORTH CAROLINA 73, OHIO 65 03/23/2012
OHIO 29-8 (11-5) -- D. Cooper 3-20 3-3 10; W. Offutt 10-18 0-1 26; N. Kellogg 4-5 2-2 14; I. Baltic 2-10 0-0 4; R. Keely 2-7 2-2 6; J. Smith 0-2 0-0 0; T. Hall 2-7 0-0 5; R. Johnson 0-1 0-0 0; S. Taylor 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-71 7-8 65. NORTH CAROLINA 32-5 (14-2) -- R. Bullock 6-13 0-0 17; H. Barnes 3-16 4-6 12; T. Zeller 8-14 4-7 20; J. Henson 6-12 2-6 14; S. White 0-4 2-2 2; J. Watts 0-0 0-0 0; J. McAdoo 2-2 2-3 6; P. Hairston 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 26-65 14-24 73.
Three-point goals: OHIO 12-32 (W. Offutt 6-10; I. Baltic 0-1; D. Cooper 1-10; T. Hall 1-4; R. Johnson 0-1; N. Kellogg 4-5; S. Taylor 0-1), UNC 7-22 (R. Bullock 5-10; H. Barnes 2-9; S. White 0-1; P. Hairston 0-2); Rebounds: OHIO 26 (N. Kellogg 8), UNC 56 (T. Zeller 22); Assists: OHIO 17 (D. Cooper 6), UNC 18 (S. White 6); Total Fouls -- OHIO 22, UNC 13; Fouled Out: OHIO-W. Offutt; UNC-None.