Miracle in The Garden: Analyzing Ohio State's Improbable Comeback Over Notre Dame

By Kyle Rowland on December 23, 2013 at 9:15a
Crunch time.

Thad Matta has coached for nearly 25 years. He’s been on the doorstep of a national championship, almost helped guide a 16 seed to triumph over a No. 1 seed and been a part of several other maddening March heartbreakers. But even he had never witnessed anything quite like what transpired in Madison Square Garden Saturday night.

The Buckeyes scored 17 points during the first 19 minutes, 10 seconds of the second half and made fewer than 10 field goals; this after shooting 50 percent from the field in the first half. However, the final 50 seconds is all that mattered. Ohio State erased an eight-point deficit to stun Notre Dame 64-61. The Buckeyes forced four turnovers to end the game on a 14-3 run.

It was a Christmas Miracle just a block from 34th Street.

“I’m still trying to figure out what happened,” Matta said.

The shooting slump Ohio State endured for a majority of the second half came as a surprise considering the team’s recent success. It went five consecutive games with a shooting percentage above 50 percent before Wednesday’s win over Delaware. Then the Buckeyes followed it up by making 13 of 26 shot attempts in the first half against the Fighting Irish.

But they went more than nine minutes during the second half without a field goal and guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., the team’s leading scorer through 12 games, was held scoreless before scoring nine points in the final 45 seconds. As a team, Ohio State was in the midst of a 6 for 23 stretch.

“We’re fighters,” Smith said. “We’re never going to give up, we’re never going to stop believing in this team. As you can see, we can do some pretty good stuff if we trust our system and keep our composure.”

Instead, the Buckeyes forced Notre Dame to come undone. A full-court press completely flustered the Irish. In a six-second span, Ohio State scored six points thanks to consecutive steals by Shannon Scott.


The comeback portion of the game was eerily similar to the Elite Eight versus Wichita State, when the Buckeyes’ furious rally fell just short. Smith said Ohio State was able to complete the rally against the Notre Dame due to the correct adjustments and a lack of panic. It was Smith who made three crucial free throws with 32 seconds left to cut the lead to one.

“You miss these free throws and you ruin Christmas,” he said.

He made them, dumping lumps of coal in the Irish’s stocking. The Buckeyes took the lead seconds later to snatch away a Notre Dame win in a New York minute.

How It All Went Down

During Ohio State’s mad dash to the finish, it failed to miss a field goal attempt – the Buckeyes were 3 for 3 – and only missed one of nine free throws. Experience and youth were two main themes. Ohio State’s upperclassmen – Aaron Craft, Smith and Scott – played key roles, accounting for all 14 points, while Notre Dame had multiple freshmen turn the ball over and miss a crucial front end of a one-and-one.

When the PA announcer told the 10,138 patrons in Madison Square Garden that one minute remained in the game, the Irish held a comfortable eight-point advantage and there was little reason to believe the Buckeyes weren’t 60 seconds away from their first defeat.

0:50, Notre Dame 58, Ohio State 52 

Notre Dame senior guard Jerian Grant, who was dismissed from the team Sunday, scored a game-high 18 points. But he turns the ball over with 58 seconds left, leading to an easy basket for LaQuinton Ross.

“I’m a senior and I have to find a way to not turn the ball over when we didn’t have our point guard in there,” Grant would say following the game.

0:45, Notre Dame 58, Ohio State 54

After the made basket, Ohio State sets up its full-court press and executes it flawlessly. The Buckeyes’ backcourt is among the best in the nation defensively and it showed up in a big way during their rally. Notre Dame freshman guard Demetrius Jackson becomes trapped after receiving the inbounds pass. Smith steals the ball and dashes to the basket for a layup. It’s his first points of the game.

0:40, Notre Dame 58, Ohio State 56

Once again, Ohio State’s press confounds Notre Dame. And once again, a trap forces a turnover. This time Craft and Scott team up for a steal. Scott is fouled immediately and makes both free throws. In 10 seconds, Ohio State turns an eight-point deficit to two.

“They really turned the heat up on us and flustered us,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “We had a hard time doing anything right. We didn’t have [point guard Eric] Atkins [who fouled out], but the other guys should have handled it better.”

0:39, Notre Dame 60, Ohio State 56

Notre Dame restores order after a foul. Jackson makes two free throws, giving the Irish a comfortable two-possession lead. Ohio State’s comeback bid is doused with water for the first time.

0:32, Notre Dame 60, Ohio State 59

Seven seconds after upping its lead, Notre Dame commits arguably its biggest sin of the final minute. Smith pump fakes after catching the ball in the corner and the Irish’s Pat Connaughton inexplicably fouls him while shooting a three-pointer. This is when Smith tells himself Christmas is on the line. He proceeds to calmly make all three free throws. Suddenly, it’s a one-point game and time becomes less of a factor.

0:31, Notre Dame 60, Ohio State 59

Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia is fouled. As the freshman stands at the free-throw line, he’s seen taking several deep breaths and reaching over to grab his legs. The look of nervousness is obvious. Vasturia is at the line for a one-and-one. These are his first career free throw attempts. He misses the first one.

0:16, Ohio State 61, Notre Dame 60

Smith snares the ball, passes to Craft who brings it up court and drives the lane. As four defenders collapse, Craft dishes to Smith, who is cutting toward the basket. Smith makes a virtually uncontested layup. Ohio State has its first lead since the 11:06 mark of the second half.

It takes the Buckeyes all of 34 seconds to score 11 points and go from trailing by eight to leading by one.

0:10, Ohio State 61, Notre Dame 60

Grant drives toward the basket but loses control of the ball. It bounces off his leg and out of bounds. Ohio State ball.

0:09, Ohio State 63, Notre Dame 60

Smith is fouled and makes both free throws.

0:06, Ohio State 63, Notre Dame 61

Leading by three, Ohio State opts to foul Notre Dame. It’s the opposite of what happened some four years prior to the Buckeyes. They held a three-point advantage in the closing seconds of an NCAA Tournament game against Siena and did not foul. Siena made a three and went on to win a thrilling double-overtime game.

Ohio State isn’t going to get burned this time. Grant misses the first free throw and makes the second.

“My mind was fixated on if we wanted to foul with the time situation or do we play it out defensively…” Matta said.

0:03, Ohio State 64, Notre Dame 61

On the ensuing inbounds pass, Ohio State is able to waste three critical seconds before Notre Dame applies a foul. Craft makes one of two free throws.

Final: Ohio State 63, Notre Dame 61

Jackson’s game-tying 3 misses at the buzzer. He gets a makeable shot from the NBA three-point line but the ball clangs off the rim.

“I don’t really know what happened,” Craft said. “It was a big blur.”


Comments Show All Comments

cplunk's picture

It was pretty amazing. I was out and turned on the game with one minute left. Just assumed they would lose but boy am I glad I watched the final minute!

Unky Buck's picture

I never turn games off or leave a game early, but Saturday night I did in order to watch some Christmas movies while I was wrapping gifts as I was rather dejected after the deficit went to eight. Lesson learned...

Rock over London; Rock on Chicago. Timex: It takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'

Oyster's picture

I'm guessing Santa will be leaving you a lump of coal this year for this transgression.

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

Unky Buck's picture

It may be one of many...

Rock over London; Rock on Chicago. Timex: It takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'

Oyster's picture

As GEN Lee said to Jeb Stuart at the Battle of Gettysburg when he was off with his cavalry and not being the eyes of the Army, which was his job.  "Let us never speak of this again."
GEN Stuart learned his lesson, I hope you have learned yours.

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

Buckeye Scottie's picture

That was a hell of an ending.  That gif doesn't show it, but Lenzelle's layup off the Craft dime at the :16 mark was oh so close to rimming out.  I think Smith was surprised how uncontested he was.  It went high of the glass and was so close to rimming out.  He was such a non-factor for the entire game, but man did we come up big in the last 45 seconds.

GregB's picture

I was following via my phone and when the score was 58-52 the screen stopped refreshing 
I closed the ESPN app and when I reopened it the score was final and thought it had to be a mistake

bucksfan92's picture

This game was remarkably similar to the E8 game vs Wichita, but I actually had more hope in winning that one than this one before the comeback started.  When Ross missed a 3 around the 2:00 mark it felt like we were down 20 with no hope. It's funny as we started the comeback I was hoping there would be enough time. Once we got the lead back with 16 seconds, it felt like there was an eternity left!

SaltyD0gg's picture

Best Buckeye comeback I've ever seen. One of the best shooty hoops comebacks I've ever seen period. Resilient to the end. 

Pain of Discipline

Pain of Regret

Take Your Pick

Bucks1's picture

“You miss these free throws and you ruin Christmas,” - Lenzelle Smith, Jr.  No Pressure! What a classic quote.

"I will pound you and pound you until you quit." - Woody Hayes

Jack Fu's picture

One of the most incredible endings I've ever seen. Still, enthusiasm, while warranted, should be tempered for two reasons:
1. OSU loses that game if ND's starting PG doesn't foul out. He was their best ballhandler and probably would have handled the pressure much better than Grant and Jackson did.
2. ND provided the perfect blueprint for beating this OSU team: on defense they packed the paint in a 2-3 zone (which, it must be said, Matta's teams have never been particularly good at penetrating), and on offense they got the ball to whoever Ross was guarding, ISO'd him, and had him penetrate. For all of Ross's improvement on the other end, he is still an abominable defender, and the coaching staff has their work cut out for them figuring out some way to hide him.

TMac's picture

And while Lenzell sparkled in the last minute, he can't be MIA for 38 minutes and expect to win road games in the B1G. 

ONE Not Done!

Mad Thatta's picture

My buddy and I were both at the game, managed to score some pretty sick baseline seats for $50. O-H, I-O's all around, probably about 65% OSU/35% ND. Pretty calm 1st half, but near the end, refs weren't giving us anything.
When the score was 58-50, I began to feel pretty pissed that my first OSU basketball game was going to be a loss. Now I'm pretty elated that it was my first, because it was definitely one of the craziest OSU games I've ever witnessed, live or on TV. Near the end, MSG had a playoff game vibe to it, and we pulled out a gutsy win.
Best moment: Jurassic Park theme playing while the Player of the Game plaque is presented to Q. Nothing like John Williams to end a game.

"No." - Rosa Parks

HattanBuck85's picture

Great game. Amazing finish. 

"The height of human desire is what wins, whether it's on Normandy Beach or in Ohio Stadium." - Woody Hayes

Killer nuts's picture

I love Craft's reaction in the gif where the ND guy gets stripped and the ball goes off his leg with 10 seconds left

bucknasty's picture

Great win. Crazy that Grant is gone.. gotta think Notre Dame struggles to make the tourny without him.

Goose's picture

I know it isn't exactly Matta's style, but I think the last minute showed how formidable we could be with more pressure.  Our bench is deeper and I feel like a small lineup with Craft, Scott, Smith, Thompson and Ross could be extremely effect in stretches pressuring full court.  This is especially true if teams are going to play zone and pack the paint against us.  Let's turn up the pressure and try to get more points in transition.

Seattle Linga's picture

That crazy locker room dancing in yesterday's article was the best post game I have seen in awhile. Kudos to the Buckeyes who never gave up.

Crumb's picture

That was special to see, I've never seen that in Basketball game where a team down by 8 with under a minute to go comes back and actually wins by 3. That's one of the all time greats that won't soon be forgotten.

"The only good thing about it is winning the d*** thing" - Urban Meyer on The Game The War