INDIANAPOLIS – Thad Matta wasn’t even thinking about the game.
By the time Ohio State fell behind Nebraska by 18 points, Matta’s mind drifted to the ride home. He wondered how long the 177-mile trek to Columbus would take.
“We weren’t playing at a high level, obviously, since we got down 18 points,” Matta said.
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LaQuinton Ross got a technical, the Cornhuskers were making seemingly every shot and unforced errors had the Buckeyes on the brink of a complete collapse. Matta motioned for a timeout and didn’t even wait for his team to reach him before the purple-faced tirade began.
For the next two minutes, saliva and expletives flew through the air. Little did Nebraska know its bench would go from jovial to funereal in a matter minutes.
“I’m not saying it was the right thing, but it sparked our team,” said Ross, about his fourth technical in the past seven games. “We got a little angry after that. They were shoving a little bit after the whistle, basically trying to bully us. I don’t know what they were thinking.”
Written off midway through the second half, fifth-seeded Ohio State regrouped and wrote a thrilling script in a 71-67 come-from-behind victory over the Huskers in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Down 18, the Buckeyes engineered their second memorable comeback of the year. In December, they used a remarkable display of defense to erase a 10-point deficit in the final minute against Notre Dame. On Friday, Ohio State (25-8) flexed its defensive muscle again, employing a harassing full-court press that left the No. 4 seed Huskers (19-12) bewildered.
The Buckeyes outscored Nebraska 41-19 over the final 13:33, forcing seven turnovers.
“We found ways to pick up the defensive intensity,” Matta said. “Everyone’s going to point to the full-court press, but our half-court defense was really good. If you look at the buckets Nebraska had to make, they were incredible plays. I kept telling our guys, ‘If they keep making those, we’re probably not going to win the game. But they can’t keep making those plays.’”
Ross had his second double-double in as many days, recording a career-high 26 points and 13 rebounds. Amedeo Della Valle finished with 12 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals.
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Della Valle, a little-used three-point specialist, played a central role in the biggest comeback in Big Ten Tournament history. He scored 11 points, blocked three shots and had two steals in the decisive run.
“At that point we were looking for anything we could find,” Matta said.
He ran a good-humored campaign for Undergraduate Student Government president, promising more snow days for Ohio State and In-N-Out Burger on campus. He received 479 write-in votes, nearly 4,000 shy of the winners. If only the election were held one week later, the floppy-haired Italian might be addressed “Mr. President” by Matta.
“I don’t want to be just a shooter,” Della Valle said. “I can drive the ball or pass the ball. I don’t necessarily have to make threes.”
Ohio State didn’t get its first second-half lead until the final minute, when Ross made two free throws. It never trailed again.
“Unfortunately, I thought that we beat ourselves,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said. “I know you have to credit Ohio State with their pressure late; the last 13 minutes they really did an excellent job of getting us rattled. Their physical defense out front I thought really got to us. But really, at the end of the day, when you have a lead like that, you should be able to hold it and keep it and find a way to win. But unfortunately, we weren't able to.”
- Ohio State staged the largest comeback in Big Ten Tournament history, rallying from an 18-point second half deficit.
- This is OSU's sixth-straight semifinal berth in the B1G tourney.
- Amedeo Della Valle posted career highs in rebounds (five), steals (two) and blocks (three).
Free throw shooting has plagued the Buckeyes all season, and it looked like miscues from the charity stripe would cost Ohio State again. It was just 7 of 18 from the line before making its final 10 attempts – four each from Ross and Della Valle and two from Craft.
“To me, it’s a little mental,” Matta said. “It’s like the flu, it becomes contagious. Fortunately, we got it back going the other way.”
The Buckeyes capitalized on a height advantage down low, outscoring the Huskers 36-14 in the paint and finishing plus-9 in rebounds.
Terran Petteway, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, paced Nebraska’s offense with 20 points, but he was held scoreless the final 10 minutes and fouled out with 58.1 seconds left.
It wasn’t a slow start that doomed Ohio State, nor was it a lack of motivation. Instead, Miles shrewdly called on the Buckeyes’ kryptonite: zone defense.
Ohio State made one basket over an eight-minute span in the first and second halves, going 1 of 10 from the field and 0 of 5 from the free throw line during the futile stretch. The Huskers built an 18-point lead and calmly watched the Buckeyes come unraveled until they one-upped Ohio State.
“They played a tough, aggressive game,” junior forward Sam Thompson said. “That’s the type of team they are.”
The Buckeyes controlled most of the first half, building a 20-12 lead on efficient offense. But Nebraska ended the final seven minutes of the first half on a 19-8 run, and that was without Petteway, who was in foul trouble.
It only got worse for Ohio State. Nebraska started the second half on a 17-2 run, part of a nearly 15-minute period where it outscored the Buckeyes 36-10.
“I’m never going to ask these guys to play perfect, but some of the things we did as we continue to move forward, it can’t happen,” Matta said. “The greatest thing is everyone of those guys that made those mistakes played their way out of it, and that was the different in the game.
The first cracks in the Huskers’ 48-30 lead came when Ross made back-to-back baskets, including a three, and Della Valle followed with a four-point flurry. In 101 seconds, Ohio State’s deficit went from 18 to nine.
It continued chipping away at Nebraska’s lead with a mixture of suffocating defense and patience on offense.
“We knew there was no 20-point basket, so we had to take every possession one at a time,” junior guard Shannon Scott said. “We thought, ‘We’ve got to get a stop.’ And once we started doing that, we really got pride in our offense, and that really got us going.”
Off a long hallway in the bowels of Bankers Life Fieldhouse sits a room filled with Nebraska hats and shirts inscribed with “Big Ten Tournament Champions.” The boxes of merchandise were visible during Day 1 of the tournament. But they’ll soon find their way to a third-world country after Ohio State’s first-rate performance.
It’s not like the Buckeyes needed added motivation. If they did, though, it came in various forms. At the top of the list was Nebraska’s court-storming victory in January, just weeks after Ohio State defeated the Huskers by 31 points. On Thursday, the Buckeye locker room was brimming with lingering anger as they remembered that January night.
“It definitely stings a little bit,” senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “To not only lose but to have the fans storm the court and have to have someone escort you back to the locker room.”
Two months later, Smith and his teammates got their revenge, sending Nebraska to its locker room in a daze while the Buckeyes seemed to glide after yet another implausible retort.
NOTE: Ohio State plays top-seeded Michigan (24-7) in the semifinals Saturday at 1:40 p.m. on CBS.