CHICAGO – With a face as red as Ohio State’s scarlet jersey numbers, Thad Matta let his team – and star player, Deshaun Thomas – know that the effort was lacking on the defensive end.
Nebraska raced out to a 9-4 lead in the opening minutes of the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal, prompting Matta’s timeout and ensuing fury. It was Thomas who received the worst of it after consecutive possessions of nonexistent defense and poor shot selection.
“In so many words, (Matta said) get your minds right and play basketball,” said sophomore forward and Chicago native Sam Thompson, who finished with a career-high 19 points. “We came out and we sort of had some sleep in our eyes. We didn’t respect Nebraska; we didn’t come out the way we needed to. Coach Matta wanted to light into us and get us ready to play.”
Senior forward Evan Ravenel, who was on the receiving end of an infamous ripping at Northwestern in February said Matta’s message was simple: “It’s time to play Ohio State basketball. Get your heads out of your butts, and let’s go.”
Thomas’ trip to the principal’s office earned him a detention and seat on the bench for several minutes. But Matta’s short fuse provided Ohio State with a super charge of momentum.
The deficit grew to as much as 11, but Shannon Scott helped engineer a 12-0 run, coinciding with an almost six-minute scoreless stretch for the Cornhuskers. It was all Ohio State for the final 27 minutes, as they rolled into Saturday’s semifinals with a 71-50 victory at the United Center.
“It really showed the maturity level of our team,” Thompson said. “We were playing together. We had great pace to our offense. We were moving the ball. When we play like that, we’re tough to beat.”
It was almost as if Matta flipped the on switch during his high-volume engagement. The Buckeyes’ body language changed along with their level of play. Nebraska turned the ball over five times in seven possessions, leading to easy points for Ohio State. For the game, the Buckeyes scored 21 points off 15 Nebraska turnovers.
“It was definitely something that the game came down to was us not handling the pressure well, kind of being loose with the ball at times,” said senior Nebraska forward Brandon Ubel, who had 16 points and seven rebounds in his final college game. “It ended up costing us the game. Obviously, it’s frustrating when you’re turning the ball over and they’re turning it into buckets at the other end. But we just weren’t tight with our game and let that pressure get to us a little bit.”
The motivation from Matta also worked – for Thomas and the team. He finished with 19 points, nine rebounds, one block and a steal.
“You know, I took a bad shot early, didn't run a play all the way through and then I scored on,” Thomas said. “But Coach grabbed me, took me out and my teammates and my coaches told me to just calm down, get your mind right and things are going to come to you. Just relax.”
Thompson, playing in the United Center for the first time, had a night to remember. The game took place less than two blocks from Whitney High School, where he became a heralded recruit.
“It felt great to be home and play in front of my family,” he said. “It’s always great to be back in Chicago.”
On the trip to the arena from its downtown hotel, Ohio State’s team bus took a detour to drive past Thompson’s high school. Apparently, it added extra inspiration for the high-flying sophomore who’s known more for his dunking than shooting.
On this night, though, it was all about his smooth release. Thompson finished 8 of 9 from the field, making all six shot attempts in the second half.
“It was cool,” he said. “We got here about 30 minutes before we were able to touch the basketball and stuff. Just coming out here, seeing all the banners, seeing the Madhouse on Madison. It was a great feeling.”
In the second half, Ohio State converted on 17 of its 22 field goal attempts. The efficiency also translated over to creating scoring opportunities, as the Buckeyes assisted on 20 of their 26 made baskets for the 40 minutes.
“We got off to a slow start and I thought once we focused in and got our minds where they needed to be, we were very effective, especially with the defense,” Matta said. “Second half, shooting 77 percent, we had a better pace to our offense, which is what we needed.”
Despite the offensive lull for Nebraska in the closing minutes of the first half, it was within striking distance because Ohio State wasn’t much hotter offensively. The Buckeyes only made nine field goals in the first half.
Technology-savvy Nebraska head coach Tim Miles (@CoachMiles) tweeted out at halftime, “We are playing defense well enough, but we have to stop turning it over.”
But it was more of the same for the Huskers after the break. Ohio State came up with 10 steals on the night.
The second-half onslaught included three consecutive 3s from LaQuinton Ross, who finished with 11 points. Aaron Craft had an Aaron Craft night – seven points, eight assists and two steals. The highlight was surpassing the 500 mark for career assists.
Ohio State’s 28-23 halftime lead became a 26-point advantage thanks in large part to a 26-5 start to the second half. Defense once again led to offense, with the Buckeyes forcing eight turnovers in the first eight minutes of the second half.
At one point, the Buckeyes outscored Nebraska, 46-13, after falling behind 15-6. Making nine 3s helped.
Ohio State carries a six-game win streak into its semifinal matchup tomorrow with Michigan State at approximately 4:05.
“We try to come in and prepare just like any other game,” Craft said. “This is an opportunity to hopefully put another banner up in the gym. That’s the way to look at it, trying to take it one game at a time, and hopefully we can be there at the end again.”