It started four weeks to the day in a hostile Madison environment. The Buckeyes were absolutely smoked by 22, getting their doors blown off from the outset in a 24-6 hole and decimating their Big Ten regular season title hopes (or so we thought). Thad Matta said to his team after that game, “It was embarrassing and we’re not going to let this go. We’re going to beat this drum until you guys realize this can never happen again.” Since then, Ohio State has turned the corner. They’re one of the hottest teams in the country, and after wins against Nebraska and Michigan State, they capped off their weekend with a third win in three days, capturing Matta’s fourth Big Ten Tournament Championship and third in four years as they beat Wisconsin at their own slow-paced game with a 50-43 win.
There were times where it looked like they weren’t going to have it in them to win it. Wisconsin used a 18-2 run in the first half to take a nine-point lead, during which the Buckeyes had just ONE field goal in a ten minute stretch. Ohio State shot just 1-for-16 (SIX PERCENT!) from the three point line. Deshaun Thomas was only 6-of-19 shooting, and the entire game was played at Wisconsin’s pace. It was ugly and junked up. Both teams shot below 40 percent, but in all that ugly basketball, Ohio State battled through tired legs and clanked shots and found an inner toughness that it takes to capture the conference tournament in the nation’s best conference. They had it against Michigan State, and they had it again today.
Every bucket seemed like its own momentum swing. Each pair of buckets strung together was effectively an extended run. Each team took it deep into their own shot clock to limit possessions. In all of these hard fought wins, however, I think Ohio State has found itself. Last year’s team going just six or seven (tops) deep probably doesn’t win this tournament. They needed to be eight strong this weekend, and every single man contributed to this title.
Wisconsin found success with Traevon Jackson’s midrange jumper and Ryan Evans working in the post. Jackson led all Badger scoring with 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting, while Evans had 6 points on 3-of-9 shooting as I feel the Badgers could have really fed him more in the post with Thomas guarding him. To his credit though, Thomas responded and made the mid-range jumpers and post feeds contested. Sam Dekker gave the Badgers 8 points off the bench, but the Badgers struggled with their three point game as well, a key part of what they do. Wisconsin shot just 3-of-18 from range, with Mike Bruesewitz delivering two of those.
There were a couple of turning points in this game, and the first one was the Buckeyes’ 8-0 sprint to finish the half and cut the deficit to just one. In that span, it was a set of really tough Deshaun Thomas buckets that showed the Buckeye forward’s true grit. One in particular came when he shot a flat-footed putback over Bruesewitz where a foul could have been called either way (it was a Ted Valentine crew again, so not much was called). Thomas said of that run, “Yeah, we didn’t freak out. I mean, we got in the huddle, we took a deep breath, and we stayed with our system. I know last month we probably would have freaked out and forced a lot of things, but we stayed in it, and we kept our head in it, and we made a nice little run.”
Most of the second half was played within a four point window. Neither team took more than a two-point advantage until Ohio State did with four and a half minutes remaining. There were plenty of missed shots with both teams taking sound care of the basketball and playing strong positional defense. Down the stretch, it was Matta’s decision to once again go with the small lineup of Craft, Scott, Smith or Thompson, Ross, and Thomas that probably won him the contest. Even when Wisconsin bought center Jared Berggren back into the game, the Buckeyes schemed for it on defense, pinching for help when needed and even having Aaron Craft fronting him in the post successfully for an entire possession to hold their own.
Growing up before our eyes this weekend was sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross. In 19, 15, and 19 minutes this weekend, Ross scored 11 against Nebraska, 9 against Michigan State, and 7 incredibly vital second half points this afternoon. In the three day stretch, he shot 56% and turned it over six times (four of those in mop up time against Nebraska). In the second half, he drilled a left-wing three, the team’s sole triple for the game. He also scored two incredible dire buckets late. The first came with four and a half left where he rebounded a Thomas three point miss weak side. He took it right to Evans with a couple of dribbles and went through two Badgers to score it plus draw Evans’s fourth foul. The next one was nearly two minutes later and the next points in the game. With the shot clock under ten, Ross set a screen on Scott, floating to the right wing. Scott passed it to him, and Ross took Brust off the dribble, spinning and finishing with his left as the ball rattled around for a second before deciding to fall through the hoop. Matta said of his forward, “Well, I thought Q was tremendous. He did have a couple of timely field goals for us and a couple big rebounds. You know, that’s what we need from LaQuinton at that spot. Everything he did, he really battled defensively. We had a choice to make when they put the big fella back in, and we said, let’s go with it, we’ll stay with it, see what happens for a couple possessions. He was down there battling and really, really did a nice job.”
Craft may have only had 9 points in this one, but you could just feel the momentum shift start when an Evans baseline drive and bounce pass to Bruesewitz was chipped away by Craft. The ball trickled out to the right corner, and Shannon Scott dove for his life and ripped it away from Ben Brust, who tried to reach down to pick it up. Scott in one motion whipped it up to Craft, and Aaron took it coast to coast, blowing by Bruesewitz in the open court and gliding by a set-up Jackson underneath the bucket to lay it in and give Ohio State the lead for good, turning away from the contact and finishing with his left. Because of Craft’s defense as well as others’, the Badgers scored just 6 points in the final ten minutes and only 2 points in the final seven.
To me, this win was so important for the psyche of this team and its fans. After watching their hopes of a Big Ten 4-way split in the regular season dashed on a collapse by the Wolverines at home, the Buckeyes had their destiny in their own hands again in Chicago. They didn’t always have the hot shooting hand, but they did ratchet up the defense and get timely buckets from their supporting cast. Nothing in the tournament is guaranteed, so winning some Big Ten hardware for the fourth straight season is still very monumental and important as Matta continues to branch out this program’s sustained success.
Next up, the Buckeyes got a fairly favorable draw in the NCAA tournament. They’re being shipped out West, but they’re a #2 seed with an opening round game against the Iona Gaels on Friday night at 7:15 pm. They ended up in the same bracket as the #1 seed Gonzaga, #3 seed New Mexico, and #4 seed Kansas State (not to mention Wisconsin as the #5). Should they advance to the Round of 32, they would face either #7 Notre Dame or #10 Iowa State. As we’ve seen with this team all year long, the Buckeyes could exit the first weekend. However, we’ve also seen what this team is capable of at the high end of things. If they’re playing at a high level into that second weekend, Atlanta via Dayton and Los Angeles isn’t out of the question. Thomas added, “Yeah, it feels great. It’s a great accomplishment. We went through some battles through the season, some ups and downs, but we never gave up on each other, and I think this is so special for us as a team, as a coaching staff, and for Ohio State University.”
I couldn’t agree more.
(Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)