INDIANAPOLIS – The signage inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse makes reference to the Big Ten Tournament. But forgive onlookers if they thought Thursday was the commencement of the annual gathering for the Thad Matta Spring Invitational.
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And on Day 1, the namesake notched another victory, as Ohio State topped Purdue 63-61. But it wasn’t until Purdue guard Terone Johnson missed a potential game-winning three at the buzzer that the Buckeyes – and Matta – could breath easy.
“I was under the rim. It looked pretty good to me,” junior forward Sam Thompson said. “[Purdue] had seniors, players that didn’t want their season to end. Anytime you get a team playing like that, it’s going to be a tough matchup.”
In a season filled with inconsistency – disasters and marquee wins alike – Thursday’s near catastrophe fit the script.
Fifth-seeded Ohio State (24-8) sleepwalked through the afternoon, falling behind the woeful Boilermakers 7-1 and trailing most of the second half. It led assistant coach Dave Dickerson to implore his players to “wake up” with colorful language sprinkled in.
The Buckeyes obliged, but not until midway through the second half. In a game that featured 15 lead changes, Ohio State didn’t take control until the seven-minute mark in the second half. A 12-3 run stifled upset-minded Purdue, who never led the last seven minutes. The Boilermakers got within one twice in the final 1:36, but the Buckeyes did just enough to advance to the quarterfinals.
“I’m glad we finally won as ugly one,” Matta quipped. “In all seriousness, this was an ugly basketball game. Fortunately for us, we found some ways to make big plays down the stretch both offensively and defensively.”
LaQuinton Ross paced Ohio State with 19 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. Aaron Craft scored 16 points, and Amir Williams finished with 10 rebounds. Seven Buckeyes scored, but it wasn’t indicative of the team’s offensive futility.
Ohio State shot 36 percent for the game, made 1 of 14 three-point attempts and 16 of its 25 free throws.
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“We weren’t as sharp as we needed to be,” Matta said. “You have to challenge your guys mentally, you have to challenge your guys physically. You have to hope deep down inside they want to man-up and play their best basketball. We weren’t as sharp as we needed to be, but found a way to win.”
No one expected the No. 12 seed Boilermakers to push Ohio State so hard. They entered the tournament on a six-game losing streak and lost to the Buckeyes by a combined 27 points in two meetings this season. In a one-and-done setting, though, March creates stories every year. Purdue nearly added its name to the 2014 version of Madness.
The back-and-forth started at the opening tip and didn’t end until the teams walked off the court. Ohio State led by three at halftime despite shooting just 36.7 percent. Large stretches of the second half belonged to Purdue before the Buckeyes’ late surge. But a five-point lead nearly evaporated in the final 15 seconds.
The culprit: free throws, of course. Ohio State missed two in the closing seconds that could’ve given it a two-possession lead. Instead, the off-target shots opened the door for Purdue.
“I tried to step to the line, clear my mind and make those free throws,” said Lenzelle Smith Jr., who missed a free throw that allowed Purdue to hang around.
The first cracks in the Buckeyes’ lead came when the Boilermakers trimmed a 59-54 deficit to 59-58 with four consecutive points. It was 61-60 with 18.1 seconds remaining when Craft missed one of two free throws. Smith followed with the same sequence at the charity stripe.
- Ross grabbed 15 rebounds, a career high, to go with his 19 points. OSU is 5-0 when Ross records a double-double.
- Ohio State's 10 blocked shots tie for second on the B1G tournament single-game list.
- OSU finished 1-10 from downtown Thursday, and are now 5-31 (.161) in their last three games.
Leading 63-60, Ohio State opted to foul Ronnie Johnson with 2.8 seconds left. Matta is already haunted by one game-tying three in the postseason – Siena’s come-from-behind win in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Johnson made the first free throw before intentionally missing the second. The ball bounced off Smith’s outstretched arms and was awarded to Purdue after an official review.
With 1.2 seconds to go, Terone Johnson got an open look from the left side of the arc, but it bounced off the rim.
“It’s win or go home, and no one wants to go home,” Smith said. “I’m just a little bit disappointed that we didn’t even play 75 percent capable of how well we’re able to play. Luckily, we were able to get the win.”
Ohio State’s triumph over Purdue is the Buckeyes’ 12th conference tournament win in their past 13 games. Matta, in his 10th season at Ohio State, is 20-5 all-time in the Big Ten Tournament with seven championship game appearances and four titles.
Purdue ends the season on its first seven-game losing streak since the 2004-05 season.
The Buckeyes play fourth-seeded Nebraska (19-11) at approximately 2:30 p.m. Friday. The game will be televised on ESPN/ESPN 2.