ST. LOUIS -- Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper received so many messages after his 13th-seeded team topped South Florida to reach the NCAA Sweet 16 that he couldn’t keep count.
But the most special one came from his mom, Dionne.
“She has this habit of texting me during the game -- even though I can’t read them until after," he said, noting that he’ll sometimes have five or six waiting for him after the final horn. “In this one, she told me how proud she was of me, and how much she loved me. She always does … but that was an especially good feeling, in that moment.”
The goal now: to experience a similar feeling (and moment) after his team’s matchup with top-seeded North Carolina on Friday night at the Edward Jones Dome.
With Tar Heels point guard Kendall Marshall’s availability in doubt after surgery to repair his fractured wrist Monday, Cooper’s play will be especially key to whether the Bobcats -- the lowest-seeded squad to make a regional semifinal since Bradley in 2006 -- keep their postseason run alive.
The 5-foot-11 athlete from Chicago averages 14.9 points, but more importantly, 2.3 steals a game on a team that ranks fourth in the nation in swipes per contest (9.3 per game) and sixth in turnover margin (plus-4.2).
That’s important against a foe that might have to start a freshman point guard (Stilman White) who is averaging only 4.3 minutes per game.
“All year, coach has been talking about playing with our hands up, keeping it tight, being able to guard our yard," Cooper said. “And that’s what we have to do Friday, too, no matter which [point] guard we’re playing against.”
Also key against the Tar Heels will be getting back in transition. Not only does UNC play fast but it boasts one of the best frontcourts in the country in 7-foot Tyler Zeller, 6-11 John Henson and 6-8 Harrison Barnes. The tallest contributors in the Bobcats’ rotation are 6-8, and no one averages more than five rebounds per game.
Still, Henson called Ohio a dangerous team.
“They're shooting better than they shot all year, 3-point wise, playing more confident," he said. “I mean, even in practice, when our [scout] guys are running their offense, it's tough to guard. So it's going to be a challenge, and we're going to play hard and see what happens.”
Ohio coach John Groce said his team is preparing as if Marshall will play but has contingency plans if he does not.
And even though he doesn’t know exactly who his opponent will be, Cooper is sure of one thing: His mom will be sending texts throughout the game, offering comments and feedback.
“It’s fun to look back and read what she was thinking," he said, smiling.
He hopes that looking back after Friday’s game will give him that especially good feeling again.
WHO TO WATCH:
OHIO: Cooper. The junior is a do-it-all guy, averaging 20 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists in the NCAA tournament. “He's really a gifted kid who, the last couple games, has really been dominant for them," UNC coach Roy Williams said.
NORTH CAROLINA: White and Justin Watts. UNC’s bigger guys should be able to have big games -- if the fill-in point guards can get them the ball. White and Watts, the third and fourth ballhandling options at the beginning of the season, have 24 assists combined this season. Marshall, by comparison, had 21 in his previous two games. Williams has stressed that these two don’t need to play like the Cousy Award finalist, but they do need to protect the ball from the thief-prone Bobcats and get it into the hands of the playmakers.
WHAT TO WATCH: Outside vs. inside.
Ohio has made 15 of 34 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament, led by Cooper and Walter Offutt. That’s been an Achilles' heel for the Tar Heels, who struggled against foes (at Florida State and versus Duke, for instance) that got hot from behind the arc.
North Carolina, meanwhile, is at its best when its frontcourt is playing its best. UNC needs Zeller, Henson, Barnes and James Michael McAdoo to use their size advantage on the boards -- and to finish plays.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.