How One Shot 10 Years Ago Changed Everything for Ohio State Basketball

By Tim Shoemaker on March 6, 2015 at 1:05 pm
Matt Sylvester
AJ Mast/Icon Sportswire

Before every Ohio State home game, a highlight package featuring Buckeye greats — past and present — plays on the video board hanging high above the floor at Value City Arena.

The reel features cameos from former players like Clark Kellogg and Greg Oden. It showcases some of the biggest plays in Buckeye history such as Ron Lewis’ game-tying 3-pointer Xavier in the 2007 NCAA tournament and Evan Turner’s prayer to beat Michigan in the 2010 Big Ten tourney. Even Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight makes an appearance.

Amid all of the images and replays of Ohio State legends, though, a shot made by a player with a career scoring average of 6.3 points per game stands out. When the fans react to the highlights as they play, the screams are a little louder for one guy in particular.

That player’s name? Matt Sylvester.

Thad Matta remembers it like it happened yesterday.

The date was March 6, 2005. Ohio State – a team barred from participating in the NCAA tournament or NIT due to NCAA sanctions – welcomed top-ranked and undefeated Illinois to Columbus during Matta's first season as head coach.

The Illini had won 29 straight games before their matchup with the Buckeyes, who were just 18-11. Illinois had blasted Ohio State by 19 points in Champaign two months prior in each team's Big Ten opener.

"We just got absolutely trounced," Sylvester said of the first meeting between the two teams.

With no chance of playing in the postseason, the Buckeyes were essentially playing for pride. They had an opportunity to knock off the nation’s No. 1 team in the final game of the regular season. Illinois, however, was trying to finish that season with a perfect 30-0 record.

"I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence going into that game considering what they had done," Sylvester said.

“That was the game plan: Don't get killed on national television.”– Thad Matta

It was a big recruiting weekend for Ohio State. In attendance were Daequan Cook and B.J. Mullens, two of Matta’s prized recruits during his time in Columbus. Oden and Mike Conley were supposed to be there, too, but they did not attend.

Still, none of the future Buckeyes sitting in the stands could suit up to face an Illinois team which featured the likes of Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell Jr. and James Augustine.

Ohio State was outmatched, and with it being such a big game for the future of his program, Matta and his staff had a simple game plan: “Look, we have to devise a plan where we don’t get killed on national television,” he recalled telling his staff a couple of days before the game. “Literally that was the game plan: Don’t get killed on national television.”

“I’m glad he didn’t tell us that," Sylvester said laughing. "His message to us the whole time was to believe and that anything can happen."

Things weren’t looking good for Ohio State from the jump. The Illini led 16-4 to start the game and were up 38-27 at the half. Brown had 11 first-half points and and Powell had 10 first-half points to lead the way for Illinois.

The first 10 minutes of the second half followed a similar path, too, with the Illini maintaining anything from an eight-to-11-point lead over the Buckeyes. An upset didn't appear to be in the cards on this day.

Ohio State trimmed the deficit to four with 3:39 remaining, but a dunk by Augustine put the Illini ahead, 64-58, with 3:24 to play. Little did Matta know those would be the final points Illinois would score in the game.

Sylvester put in a layup with 1:43 to go to pull the Buckeyes within two. Each team traded defensive stops and the Illini had the ball with 50 seconds to go, clinging to a two-point lead. Head missed a 3-pointer and Ohio State’s Tony Stockman grabbed the rebound. Matta called timeout with 12 seconds left.

In that Ohio State huddle, there was some confusion as to who was going to get the final shot for the Buckeyes.

“I still remember the timeout and the coaches said, ‘Go to (Terence) Dials, go to Dials, go to Dials,’” Matta recalled. “And I said, ‘Fellas do you really want to play these guys for five more minutes? We’re going to go for the win.'”

When Matta made that declaration, the Ohio State players were quite elated. Matta said he had to calm his guys down and tell them, "Hey, we still need to make the shot first."

Matta called a play for Sylvester, who had already set his career-high in that game with 22 points prior to the final possession. The 6-foot-7 inch junior didn’t exactly give Matta a ringing endorsement for his play call.

“He was kind of like, ‘You’re going to me?'” Matta said with a smile.

Sylvester had a little bit of a different recollection of how things went down.

"I could have sworn that when Thad started drawing that play up I went all Jimmy Chitwood on him and said something along the lines of, ‘Coach I’ll knock it down, I’ll make it,’ he said. "He was probably thinking, ‘Yeah, right.’"

Nevertheless, Je’Kel Foster inbounded the ball to Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, who kicked it to Sylvester, who had come off a pindown screen and flared out to the wing before launching a wide-open 3-pointer. The rest, as they say, is history.

Life for Sylvester now is a little bit more quiet.

After finishing his third season as an assistant coach at Division III Wilmington College, he's still around the game he loves. Things have just been scaled back quite a bit.

"I really enjoy coaching and I really like coaching at this Division III level because it’s just a little bit – it’s a lot more relaxed in the summer," he said. "You’re not running all over the place recruiting and all that.”

The Quakers had a bit of a rough time this year, finishing 11-14 and 8-10 in the Ohio Athletic Conference – the same league that features Columbus-area schools Capital and Otterbein. Two years ago, though, Wilmington won its league title and beat a Division I school, Miami (OH), 65-63.

"Our guys were jumping around like they had just won the freaking national championship," Sylvester said.

Sylvester enjoys coaching at the small-school level. And Sylvester says the biggest reason he continues to do something he enjoys so much is because of the woman he married. His wife Sarah works in Columbus, and the two are expecting their first child in a couple of weeks.

"I really married above myself," he said. "I've got a great woman that allows me to do something I really care about, which is coaching."

Sylvester still gets to play a little basketball himself, too. But it's on the court where he is most reminded that it's not 2005, and that he can't do all the things he used to be able to do.

Still, at times, that infamous shot he made for the Buckeyes doesn't feel all that long ago.

“In some ways it does and in some ways it doesn’t," he said. "I guess when I try and get back out there and play a little basketball here and there, yeah I’m reminded that I’m getting old and it was 10 years ago, but sometimes it kind of feels like it was yesterday.”

The 65-64 win over Illinois on March 6, 2005 was one of Matta’s 20 in his first year as Ohio State’s head coach. It was no doubt the biggest win that year for the Buckeyes.

That season, Illinois went on to the national championship game where it fell 75-70 to North Carolina. Sports Illustrated voted that year's Illini as the best team to ever not win a title. 

To this day – 10 years later – it remains one of the biggest wins of Matta’s Ohio State tenure. It lives on in Buckeye history; there are images of Sylvester's shot posted around Ohio State's facilities, and you can watch it on a video screen right outside the Buckeyes' practice gym.

But Sylvester’s shot wasn’t just about upsetting the Illini in a March game. It signified the rebirth of a program that had struggled mightily since making the Final Four in 1999.

“I think that that game was one of the biggest games we’ve ever played here,” Matta said.

“I am proud, though, in knowing that I just laid a brick or two in that foundation that Thad’s built, so I take a lot of pride in that.”– Matt Sylvester

Ten years later, on March 6, 2015, Matta is in his 11th season leading the Buckeyes. He has racked up 278 wins since that game against the Illini and has turned Ohio State into one of the premier programs of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes’ win Wednesday night at Penn State was Matta’s 297th in Columbus, tying him with Fred Taylor for the most in school history.

“I’m not surprised at all," Sylvester said of Matta's success. "That’s just an unbelievable accomplishment, and he couldn’t be more deserving."

Matta has a chance to take the record outright when Ohio State welcomes sixth-ranked Wisconsin to Value City Arena on Sunday. Still, he doesn’t find himself thinking too much of the situation.

“Honestly, I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “It’s more in terms of I know this team still has a lot to accomplish, that it can accomplish. I think if it happens I may take a deep breath and say, ‘Hey, let me think about what it really means to me.’”

Matta has been able to transform Ohio State from a troubled program into a year in, year out national contender. He has won five regular-season Big Ten championships and four Big Ten tournament titles. He has made two Final Fours and one national championship game appearance. The Buckeyes also had a run of four straight Sweet Sixteens from 2010 to 2013, the only school in the country to do so at that time.

Much of that success can be traced back to a shot that happened 10 years ago, one that changed the face of Ohio State’s program.

"I don’t think I can take any credit for it to be honest with you," Sylvester said. "I am proud, though, in knowing that I just laid a brick or two in that foundation that Thad’s built, so I take a lot of pride in that.”

"The funny part is for about 75 percent of my career I kind of stunk it up and they’ll only remember me for the couple game-winners I hit," Sylvester added. "I’ll take it, let’s put it that way.”

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