Eleven minutes. With 11 minutes to go in their season, the Ohio State Buckeyes woke up out of a coma and started playing. Down 20, they made a valiant comeback effort, closing it to as little as 3 points with 2:48 remaining. However, their disgraceful first half play which included 24% shooting plus a couple of missed defensive rebounds late were too much to overcome as the ninth-seeded Wichita State Shockers stunned the Bucks 70-66 to advance to the Final Four in Atlanta. The loss ends OSU’s season, and it leaves the team and its fans asking what went wrong on the Staples Center floor for a majority of the game.
All season long, this team lost games when they went into long scoring droughts. Tonight was no different, except it was the most pronounced drought of the season. In most of those other scenarios, it was struggling to find a second scorer to help out Deshaun Thomas. Last night, however, literally no one could hit water if they fell out of a boat. Three pointers, mid-ranger jumpers, drives to the basket, offensive putbacks: they were all clanking out at a record clip. When Ohio State went inside, it was Wichita State’s Carl Hall that was sending layups away (6 blocks). After missing their first seven shots from the field, the tone was set. Entirely too many outside shots were taken, but the Shockers made life tough on Deshaun Thomas going inside, and they absolutely shut down Aaron Craft’s dribble penetration. With no third scoring option willing to create for themselves in the first half, the Buckeyes looked like a shell of their former selves. The only player that played even close to his ability all season in the first 29 minutes was Amir Williams, who actually protected the paint with 4 blocks and 3 defensive rebounds in 17 minutes.
The Bucks fell behind 4-0 to start before a Lenzelle Smith Jr. three got them on the scoreboard nearly four minutes into the contest. Once Scott, Ravenel, and Ross entered the game for OSU, they made a mini-run and got the score tied at 13 nine minutes in. From there, however, Wichita State threw in a string of threes and probed the Ohio State defense on the interior, surging with a 22-9 jolt to take a 13-point halftime lead into the break. OSU failed to minimize damage, committing a pair of highly unintelligent fouls in the final thirty seconds to give Wichita State four free throws (though, Evan Ravenel barely touched anyone on his).
Instead of coming out of the halftime gates inspired like against the Wildcats, where they had trailed by 11 or in the several other instances in this win streak where they had trailed by 9 points, the Buckeyes had more of the same in the early second half, losing every 50-50 ball, not grabbing the defensive rebounds, and falling victim to certainly some hero shots from the Shockers. Going big (which they did with Ross, Thomas, and Ravenel all on the floor), going small (which they did again for most of the stretch run), it didn’t matter as the Shockers pounded the glass with 13 offensive rebounds and out-boarded the Bucks 40-37.
Former Buckeye under Jim O’Brien Devon Smith was on the Wichita State staff, and during the telecast, they mentioned how they went back to the Wisconsin game film to develop a strategy to stop Ohio State. For one, they took away Ohio State’s defense-fueling-offense transition game. The Shockers did turn it over 12 times, but the Bucks had 0 fastbreak points and only converted those 12 TOs into 6 points. Foul trouble plagued Lenzelle Smith Jr. (who did foul out with 3:54 to play), Thomas (who picked up his fourth with 7:38 left but miraculously stayed in the game), and Craft (who had two in the first half), so OSU seemed unable to play its regular physical brand of turnover-induced defensive suffocation. The wheels came off to the point where Ohio State was down 56-36 with 11 minutes remaining, and it looked like Wichita State was going to be mutilate the favorited Buckeyes.
Then, a funny thing happened, Ohio State realized they were the better team and they got to work, willing the ball into the basket. Meanwhile, Wichita State could taste the Final Four and as we’ve seen in the past with other Cinderella underdogs, they clam up and start scoreboard watching. The Buckeyes started full-court pressing more than just the inbounds pass, and it generated a few dead-ball turnovers for them. They started grabbing defensive rebounds. And offensively, LaQuinton Ross tried to play the role of hero one more time. Ross, who had just 4 points in the first half on 1-of-5 shooting, came alive as the Bucks made a comeback effort. With OSU reaching the bonus at the 10:30 mark, Ross and the other Bucks started taking the ball to the basket and getting calls. Ross wore out a path to the line, converting 9-of-10 there and scoring 15 second half points. Deshaun Thomas did much of the same, scoring 14 second half points and making 4-of-7 shots after a panicked ad frustrating 4-of-13 shooting for 9 points in the first half.
The Buckeyes went down fighting as Wichita State went into a funk, scoring just 2 times in a span of 14 possessions. Their defense ratcheted up another level, and the Shockers I think were legitimately one play going the other way from blowing a 20-point lead and losing this thing. Two plays that come to mind that did the Buckeyes in. First, after using the entire shotclock on a possession that began with 2:09 to play, Fred VanVleet missed a three pointer, only to have Sekele Cotton grab the offensive rebound as LaQuinton Ross could not gather it despite having position. That allowed the Shockers to drain another 35 seconds before VanVleet penetrated and went up and under, somehow willing the ball into the hoop to give Wichita State a 6-point lead with a minute to play. Craft then took the ball up the court and misfired on a three-pointer at just about the same spot he had hit the game-winner in Dayton on the right wing. With that defensive rebound, the Bucks had just run out of time.
In the final numbers, the offensive ineptitude is clear. OSU shot 31.1% from the field, topped only by their painfully poor effort at home against Kansas early in the season (30.8%). Thomas led the Bucks in what could have been his final game as a Buckeye with 23 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists. He also had 5 turnovers, including two on fastbreak situations where he failed to get the ball to a guard and turned it over during the run where the Bucks needed points on every possession. Ross had 19 on 4-of-12 shooting to go with 5 rebounds and 2 steals. Craft’s stardust supply ran thin, turning in just a 2-for-12 shooting effort and 9 points, notching 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. The rest of the supporting cast that had fueled this 11-game winning streak? They were virtually non-existent: Sam Thompson (1-of-3, 4 points), Lenzelle Smith Jr. (2-of-6, 5 points), and Shannon Scott (2-of-7, 6 points).
The Shockers used a true team effort to keep the Ohio State defense on their toes. They had four double digit scorers, led by Malcolm Armstead’s 14 points (though on 6-of-21 shooting) and Cleanthony Early’s 12 points. VanVleet also gave them 12 off the bench.
I’m truly disappointed and stunned that the Buckeyes did not win this game. After those two game-winners, they seemed to be a team of destiny, one that was finding their identity at just the right time. However, it was their rediscover of their OLD identity for the first half of the season that ultimately wrote their season’s epitaph. Evan Ravenel and probably junior Deshaun Thomas depart the Buckeyes, but this team’s makeup should remain very much the same for next year. They’ll have a strong upper class core of juniors and seniors, and LaQuinton Ross (15.0 ppg in the tournament) could look to replace a lot of what the team is losing in Thomas’s scoring. With two talented Top 100 freshman in Marc Loving and Kameron Williams coming in, the future is still as bright as it has ever been at Ohio State. I think Thad Matta did his best coaching job yet with this team. Unfortunately, he couldn’t coach them into making shots last night.
That’s the beauty and the sorrow that comes with the madness of March.
(Photo: Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer)