Ohio State knocks off Michigan to keep NCAA tourney hopes alive … Centers come through after sparse contributions this season … Tough finishing stretch awaiting Buckeyes.
Columbus – The Ohio State Buckeyes for much of the season have resembled something that belongs in a donut case: they’re sweet on the outside but have a hole in the middle.
Their perimeter players, though not always reliable, aren’t the reason they’ve been loitering on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. The problem has been the “bigs” in general and docile centers Trevor Thompson and Daniel Giddens in particular.
But in a 76-66 win over visiting Michigan on Tuesday, the Buckeyes fed their post players repeatedly and picked up an assortment of easy baskets like a diner filling his plate from a Golden Corral buffet.
Thompson had a pair of alley-oop dunks and Giddens a delicate sky-hook as Ohio State made nine shots in a row early in the second half to build a 52-38 lead.
The 3-point-happy Wolverines, playing without injured star Caris LeVert, managed cut the margin to seven but were never really in the game after that flurry.
Thompson, a 6-11 sophomore, had 12 points and went 6-for-7 from the field, while Giddens, a 6-10 freshman, finished with four points off the bench on 2-for-2 shooting.
Forward Marc Loving notched 13 points and 10 rebounds in a balanced attack. He had gone 19-for-74 (25.7 percent) from the floor in his previous eight games, and those were mighty contributions from such an indispensable player. The team has no seniors, and Loving is its only junior.
“We need to play with a certain amount of togetherness and energy, and I thought our guys had a very good way about them today,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “The second half, I don’t know what happened, but everyone was feeling good. I said at the timeout, ‘When we feel good, we shoot ourselves in the foot. Nobody’s going to feel good until this game is over.'”
The Buckeyes (17-10, 9-5 Big Ten) have won three straight outings but were coming off a lackluster 79-69 win at Rutgers where they had a grotesque 19 turnovers. They had only nine against Michigan.
“We really challenged our guys Saturday night when we got back from New Jersey: ‘Everybody be connected. Everybody be dialed in.’ And I thought we did a good job of that,” said Matta, who improved to 19-7 against Michigan, including 12 in a row at home.
The Buckeyes have feasted on the bottom tier of the Big Ten and went into the game 1-for-7 against the RPI top-50, their only victory coming against Kentucky. Beating the Wolverines (19-8, 9-5), ranked 51st, will at least count as a quality win, but that’s hardly a résumé that the NCAA selection committee will fawn over.
But the next 19 days will offer a chance to make a case for a tourney bid. They face Nebraska on the road Saturday (a must-win) and play Michigan State home and away sandwiched around a visit from Iowa.
“We take it minute by minute with this team,” Matta said. “This was a huge win. We had to come home and protect our home court. I want to enjoy this one with the guys. I’m proud of them.”
The Wolverines were averaging 10.3 treys per game but finished 5-for-24 from the arc.
Sophomore Duncan Robinson, one of the nation’s top 3-point shooters, went 1-for-5 and has made only seven of his last 28 attempts after hitting better than 50 percent most of the season.
The Buckeyes were stout on defense, staying attached to shooters and not drifting into the lane to help on drives as they’ve been trained to do.
“It’s so unique,” Matta said. “We’ve practiced now 108 times, and we had to go against everything we’ve practiced — because they’re driving to shoot 3’s or driving to hit the big guy. We were trying to get our guys to stay home.
“I thought the best thing we did was our transition defense. We didn’t give up many 3’s in transition.”
The highlight of the night for Matta, other than the win, was seeing Evan Turner, a former national player of year, have his No. 21 lifted to the Value City Arena rafters (though not officially retired).
The only other Buckeyes to receive that honor are Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Gary Bradds and Jimmy Jackson — pretty select company.
“Evan’s like my son,” Matta said. “To see that and knowing every day I walk in (the arena) I’m going to see that jersey — because I know what he did to get there. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a guy work harder or be more committed to his game than him.”
Matta added: “We never knew all those times Evan Turner was punting the ball to the rafters out of frustration that he was actually aiming to where he would hang his jersey one day.”