In Ohio State’s postgame press conference after a plucky win over Purdue on Sunday night, D’Angelo Russell, Sam Thompson and Amir Williams met with reporters beaming with the kind of joy you might expect after notching a critical win that should bolster their team's resume with one week left in the regular season.
Russell, the star freshman guard who guided the Buckeyes past the Boilermakers, 65-61, playfully jabbed at the notion that he had hit a “freshman wall” after pouring in 28 points.
Thompson, the high-flying senior forward whose acrobatics helped kindle a furious second-half rally Sunday night, leaned back in his chair, smiled and talked of having a final exam at 9:30 the next morning.
Williams, the much-maligned senior center who has otherwise been regarded as a disappointment, tapped the microphone and said, “Is this thing on?” after what might be his best game as a Buckeye. He then declared: “I’ve got homework to do tonight, y’all.”
There were smiles and laughs and a sense of relief to be had.
In what coach Thad Matta has categorized as an “inconsistent” season, the Buckeyes held true to that label against the Boilermakers in a game what was a tale of two halves. After falling behind by 12 points in the first half — a span in which Ohio State made seven of 28 shots and committed eight turnovers — it dazed Purdue in the second half before clinging on late.
“What I told our guys at halftime was, ‘Look we have to chip away at this thing,’” said Matta, who also added: “I told the guys I was very proud of their effort and their composure because we didn’t panic."
“We had to play harder and tougher,” Thompson said, “but we knew we just had to weather the storm and finish the game.”
In a way, the game felt like a metaphor for an Ohio State team that, at one point last month, strung together five wins in six games before suffering back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Michigan — setbacks that raised questions over whether the Buckeyes had turned a corner with the postseason looming. Consider Sunday night an answer of sorts.
“We talked about it today at shootaround," Matta said. "It’s March."
"You’ve got to find ways to win basketball games, you have to make plays and I think guys did a good job of that. We were fortunate to get back in it," he continued. "We kind of chipped away, chipped away and we finally go the lead and then we told them hey it’s a ball game now."
Indeed, the Buckeyes rode Russell, who has captured the national spotlight with his electrifying play, to a potentially pivotal win in regards to the Big Ten Tournament, where seeding can be the difference between a run and an early exit. Ohio State hopes the triumph, one that took a certain level of resolve, is a harbinger of things to come.
"This is the type of win we need to get, especially in the month of March. It’s too late for us to be taking steps backward, and it’s our time to hit our stride, get going, and to put together a run," Thompson said. "This is a step in the right direction."
After all, a loss to Penn State on Wednesday in State College, who is among the worst teams in the Big Ten, would make all of this all for none.