The defending national champion is out after one game.
The Cavaliers had a seven-point lead early in the second half, but then went more than 10 minutes without a field goal, a stretch that allowed Ohio to take its own seven-point lead. Virginia cut the lead to two with eight seconds left on a Trey Murphy 3-pointer, but Ohio iced the game with two Lunden McDay free throws.
“Man, that game, the atmosphere, even with the limited fans, it’s a dream come true to be out here playing the game I love,” Ohio forward Ben Vander Plas said. “Got a couple family members up in the stands, playing with a team I love, playing for a coaching staff I love playing with. Man, it was a special moment out there. We’re just going to keep it going.”
Virginia, the 4-seed in the West region, didn’t arrive in Indianapolis until Friday afternoon, after a positive COVID-19 test and subsequent contact tracing forced most of its roster into quarantine until Thursday. The Cavaliers practiced as a team in Charlottesville on Friday morning, underwent COVID-19 testing upon arrival in Indianapolis and then again at 1:15 a.m. on Saturday morning, and then had a shootaround on Saturday afternoon.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett wouldn’t blame rust or lack of practice time for the loss, though.
“We came in, you know, we thought we had a chance. We certainly did,” Bennett said. “I don’t know if it would have mattered if it was a normal prep or not. How can you say? We played a good team, and that’s this tournament.”
“We prepared to the best of our abilities. Again, Ohio played a better game when they needed to make plays, they made the plays, and we left some on the table. So, again, I’m grateful we got the chance. You can’t go back and change anything. I thought our guys were as ready as they can given the circumstances.”
This is the second time in the last three NCAA tournaments that Virginia has lost to a double-digit seed in the first round. In 2018, the Cavaliers were the first 1-seeds to fall to a 16-seed when they lost to UMBC. They also now become just the third team since 1979 to sandwich first-round losses to double-digit seeds around a national championship in three consecutive tournaments, joining 1986-88 Indiana and 1994-96 UCLA.
“I faced such joy in this tournament on so many occasions,” Bennett said. “I’ve faced the heartache, too. Again, as I say, you always have to be willing to accept them both, know that when your career is done this doesn’t define you, whether you win it all or you lose or anything. It’s what you do, you do it with love, joy and passion, then you don’t let it define you beyond what it should.”
Ohio finished fifth in the Mid-American Conference during the regular season, but the Bobcats won three games in three days to win the conference tournament and earn the league’s automatic bid. They had some COVID-19 issues during the final month of the season, but have now won 10 of their last 11 games and are playing some of the best basketball in the country.
Point guard Jason Preston has established himself as a name to watch in the NCAA tournament, finishing with 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists for the Bobcats. Preston scored just 52 points total as a high school senior, but has now played himself onto the NBA’s radar and is one of the best point guards left in the tournament.
“I told him this is where stars are born, legacies are made,” Ohio coach Jeff Boals said of Preston. “Give them a lot of credit. [Kihei] Clark is a very good defender. But Jason in the second half was able to get around a couple of those, had some huge rebounds … Just a phenomenal effort. He’s the heart and soul of our team. The world saw today who he is and what he’s able to do. Just really proud of him.”
Vander Plas, a player whom one MAC coach told ESPN earlier this week was a “Virginia-type player,” was arguably the best player on the floor for long stretches Saturday. He finished with 17 points, five rebounds and four assists, making three 3-pointers. At one point in the second half, Vander Plas scored 10 straight Ohio points.
He’s confident the Bobcats can keep it going, too.
“I think we go into every single game expecting to win, preparing to win. So we’re going to try to win the whole thing,” Vander Plas said. “That’s what we’re here to do. We’re going — what is it, five more games? We’re going to try to win five more games one at a time.”
Virginia will have plenty of personnel decisions to make in the next few weeks. The Cavaliers have three seniors in their rotation, including starters Sam Hauser and Jay Huff. Murphy, a junior, is also a projected second-round NBA draft pick in ESPN’s draft rankings.
For a team that entered the season as a preseason top-five team, though, this is a disappointing end to the campaign.
“You know there will be probably better times to speak clearer to them about what they meant and who they are as men and as players,” Bennett said. “After the game, not a lot is heard. It’s just trying to encourage them and thank them and tell them that they’ll always be a part of this. Again, they’ll have an ACC regular-season championship, and they got a chance to play in the tournament. That will sting how it ended, but that was the extent of it. I said I wish I had some magic words to make the sting go away, but I don’t. Time heals all things.”
Ohio moves on to play 5-seed Creighton, which held on to beat 12-seed UC Santa Barbara by one on Saturday. And with Ohio State getting upset by 15-seed Oral Roberts on Friday, the Bobcats are carrying the mantle for The Buckeye State.
“I think we’re just happy to be moving on. We’re very grateful. Our guys came in expecting to win a game,” Boals said. “The fact that we’re the only one left, I think that’s great for social media and fans. But our bandwagon, keep coming. We want everyone to support us that we can. I think this is great for our university.”