EAST LANSING, Mich. — As he has done so many times this season, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta strolled toward the podium for his postgame press conference Tuesday night with a frustrated and befuddled look on his face.
His team had just fallen on the road at Michigan State, a 74-66 loss at the Breslin Center. It was a game the Buckeyes desperately needed and yet they came up short once again.
Heard that one before?
“We just couldn’t get over the hump,” Matta said. “We couldn’t make the plays when we needed to make the plays.”
That’s something Matta has said on more than one occasion this season as Ohio State — now 15-12 and 5-9 in the Big Ten — has certainly lost its fair share of close games. The Buckeyes, once again, had a chance at a quality road win Tuesday, but after getting within one point at 52-51 with 11 minutes, 32 seconds remaining, Michigan State answered with a 12-2 run to essentially put the game out of reach.
The effort was there. The fight was there. The result was not.
“We just have to keep striving to want to win games,” said senior forward Marc Loving, who scored a game-high 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting. “We’re competing but it’s just not good enough.”
Under Matta, Ohio State had never lost nine Big Ten games until this season. With Tuesday’s loss dropping the Buckeyes to 5-9 in the league, Ohio State will not reach double-digit league wins for the first time since Matta’s very first season at the helm in 2004-05.
It’s been a trying season in Columbus — two, really — and the Buckeyes seem like they’re headed for a second-straight missed NCAA tournament. That’s also never happened under Matta at Ohio State.
Even if the Buckeyes win their remaining four games — again, not likely — they’d only pick up a single resume-building win as Wisconsin is the lone NCAA tournament lock remaining on Ohio State’s schedule.
Despite all of that, players and coaches continue to say the feeling is the Buckeyes are close.
The only problem: Time is just about out.
“Keep competing day in and day out in practice,” point guard JaQuan Lyle said. “These last two games, I think this is the hardest we’ve competed. I didn’t play at Maryland, but I could tell guys competed like crazy.
“These last two games, we’ve competed at a high level and we have to make that a standard from here on out for the rest of the season and going into the Big Ten tournament.”
A potential run in the Big Ten tournament is now what Ohio State must cling to. That’s where this team is at right now after back-to-back missed opportunities for big wins at Maryland and Michigan State.
On Tuesday night, a trying season became even more difficult.
“We’re right there,” Loving said. “We’ve been in almost all of our games by a couple points except for one. We’ve just got to keep competing in practice, just hone in on our film and take every day for what it’s worth.”
“We don’t consider ourselves losers,” Loving continued. “We want to win and we’re going to keep striving to want to win.”
Added Matta: “We’re leaving too much out on the table still. There comes a point where you’ve got to — it’s a one-time mentality. … I think we’re making progress but obviously, we’re not there yet.”