One play Saturday served as a microcosm of Ohio State’s basketball season. Looking to put the finishing touches on a statement win that doubled as a season saver, Lenzelle Smith Jr. not only missed a point-blank layup, he collided with a teammate and fell to the ground with the basketball.
It’s a minor miracle that the Buckeyes stopped Wisconsin on the ensuing possession to capture the one-point victory. Even the players thought history might be repeating itself.
Multiple times this season, Ohio State’s blown second-half leads when it seemed a win was all but assured. However, this year’s team isn’t the same group that was reliable with a late lead the previous three seasons.
“That’s just kind of how our year has gone,” senior guard Aaron Craft told Ohio State reporters in Madison. “The ball really hasn’t bounced our way too many times.”
Somehow, after all the damage, the Buckeyes are still 17-5 overall. It’s the 4-5 Big Ten record where the angst lies. Two of those losses came to Nebraska and Penn State, arguably the weakest teams in the hyper-competitive conference. Even in a down year, they’re inexcusable defeats.
But as negativity swirled in the notorious Kohl Center, a building Thad Matta had won in just once, there was a sense of calm on the Ohio State sideline in those final 8.4 seconds. What occurred when they took the court was the defensive intensity the Buckeyes displayed during the first half of the season when they were ranked in the top five.
Craft harassed ball-handler Traevon Jackson, and LaQuinton Ross – yes, LaQuinton Ross – helped supply a double team, which made sure Jackson couldn’t drive the lane. All the Badgers could do was get up an off-balance 3 at the buzzer. When it careened off the rim, Matta was seen hugging assistant coach Jake Diebler like a sumo wrestler.
“From my seat, I thought we had better composure, I thought we had a better pace about us and I think we executed better down the stretch,” Matta said.
Life in the Big Ten doesn’t get any easier. On the Big Ten teleconference, Matta referred to Ohio State’s squandered victory against Penn State and thrilling win at Wisconsin as “a typical Big Ten week.” It continues Tuesday night with the second of consecutive road games, this one at Iowa.
The Hawkeyes were loss No. 2 for the Buckeyes during their infamous tailspin. Despite playing away from Columbus this time, Ohio State couldn’t be in a better frame of mind. They enter coming off the biggest win of the season and with renewed energy, a different starting lineup and a bench that played outstanding.
“We just looked at each other and knew we couldn’t go selfish,” Craft said. “We can’t internalize things and expect everything to be all right. We have to play for a bigger purpose. If that’s playing for the guy beside you, then that’s what we need to do. I think you saw that.”
Craft scored all seven of his points in the final four minutes, and Amedeo Della Valle, Trey McDonald and Shannon Scott came off the bench to provide 26 points, eight rebounds, three assists and a steal.
The reinvigorated Buckeyes admit there’s a lot of basketball to play. But they’d be foolish to concentrate on the conference championship race. For now, the old cliché, “one game at a time” rings true.
Said Matta: “You exhale all your breath and relax.”