On Thursday, there was a players-only meeting. On Saturday afternoon, there was a lineup change. Two hours later, there was Ohio State perhaps righting a season in steep decline, upending Wisconsin 59-58 in another down-to-the-wire thriller.
Entering the game having lost five of six, the 24th-ranked Buckeyes inserted forward Sam Thompson into the starting lineup in favor of the two-point guard system, choosing to sit Shannon Scott. It created a more energetic team and resulted in a victory as Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament hopes bubbled up.
LaQuinton Ross paced the Buckeyes with 13 points, Amedeo Della Valle had 11 and Amir Williams (six rebounds, block) and Scott contributed nine points.
Aaron Craft scored all seven of his points during a three-minute span late in the second half to erase what was once a seven-point deficit. Williams made a free throw with 54 seconds left put Ohio State ahead for good. But it wasn’t without dramatics.
First, Traevon Jackson missed a free throw with 17 seconds remaining as the Buckeyes clung to a one-point lead. After a long outlet pass to Scott, he dished to Lenzelle Smith Jr., who was streaking wide open down the lane. But Smith missed an uncontested layup and fell to the court with the ball. A traveling call gave Wisconsin possession with eight seconds left.
The Badgers’ final look was equally as comical. Jackson dribbled near the three-point line, but the only shot attempt was a hurried, off-balance 3 from the top of the key by Sam Dekker.
The final result momentarily slows the bleeding for the Buckeyes. January was a month to forget for Thad Matta. His team began the New Year undefeated and ranked in the top five. It ended with a grisly thud – five losses, a hole in the bottom-half of the Big Ten and questions about the NIT.
For Matta, Saturday’s win – only his second at the Kohl Center – was about relief. He shared a long embrace with assistant Jake Diebler as the clock hit 0:00.
Now, Wisconsin is the team that’s lost five of six games after an undefeated start. Incredibly, the Badgers have dropped three consecutive home games, a first since the 1997-98 season.
The morning after arguably the program’s worst loss in a decade, Ohio State players held a closed-door meeting. Not only were losses piling up, the fashion in which they occurred was startling to observers, players and coaches alike. Ahead of a grueling two-game road trip – Wisconsin and Iowa – the players took it upon themselves to deliver a message of importance.
“We all feel like we’re one big family,” Smith said. “We know that some of the fans might not be on our side right now, but we’re not going to let that get to us. We know who we’re playing for and why we’re playing this game that we love. When we stick together, we’re going to be all right.”
All right was Saturday. The bench provided 21 of the team’s 29 first-half points and a stingy defense returned, getting stops in the final minutes after Wisconsin held its biggest lead of the game.
The Buckeyes made their first six shots of the second half until going on hiatus. It made only one field goal over the next eight minutes.
Trailing 52-45 with eight minutes left, Ohio State limited the Badger offense to 1-of-8 shooting from the field, including missing all five three-pointers. Wisconsin only made 5-of-12 free throw attempts and had two turnovers.
Considering how it started the game – making all five shots in the game’s first seven minutes – a cooling off period wasn’t expected. The Badgers shot 40 percent from the field for the game and just 17.6 percent from 3. They made their first two 3s, but only converted 1 of their last 15. In Wednesday’s loss to Northwestern, Wisconsin was under 30 percent from the field and long range.
Nigel Hayes, a freshman from Toledo, scored a game-high 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting. But his poor form from the free throw line – 5 of 11 – was a black eye for Wisconsin, who finished 19 of 29 from the charity stripe.
Hayes played for the All-Ohio Red AAU team but wasn’t recruited heavily by the Buckeyes until the end of the process By then, Bo Ryan already had the upper hand.
What was missing from Ohio State during its tailspin? Well, according to Smith, it was toughness, character, camaraderie and leadership. He said the losses didn’t inflict enough pain, there was a lack of emotion. More than anything, though, there were obvious shortcomings on offense and defense.
Opponents were shooting nearly 50 percent against the Buckeyes, and a handful topped the 45-percent threshold, which didn’t happen once during an unbeaten start.
The Buckeyes, 17-5 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten, continues the road show on Tuesday at Iowa.