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Ohio State edges Wisconsin, captures Big Ten tournament championship

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CHICAGO – Thad Matta said in October that this season’s Ohio State men’s basketball team would play its best basketball in March. There were some doubts regarding that statement throughout the year, but the coach’s prediction proved to be prophecy.
OSU bested Wisconsin for the Big Ten tournament championship, 50-43, at the United Center in Chicago Sunday afternoon. The conference tournament title is the fourth in the program’s history.
The snow pouring of confetti, the bevy of smiles, high-fives and the cutting down of the net comes only weeks after Buckeye players were admittedly “embarrassed” by the Badgers in Madison, 71-49, on Feb. 17. That day in mid-February was the “low point of the season,” said junior guard Aaron Craft.
The Buckeyes have turned their season around as well as anyone could have imagined since that miserable outing. OSU has won eight straight games and heads into the NCAA Tournament a No. 2 seed in the West Region with as much momentum as any team in the country.
Standing on a makeshift trophy-presentation stage in front of thousands of scarlet and gray-clad fans at the United Center following the victory, Matta echoed a sentiment felt by many of his team’s supporters in attendance: pride.
“I’ve never been prouder of a basketball team than I am of these guys,” Matta bellowed. “You Buckeye fans, you are the only ones that kept believing.”
Lots of people believe in this group now, with numerous analysts projecting OSU to make it back to the Final Four after reaching college basketball’s mecca in 2012.
“Where we were, the situations we were in to where we are now is a great accomplishment,” Craft said, sitting in front of his locker at the United Center with the tournament trophy behind him.
OSU was the last team standing in the country’s premier conference Sunday following a season of heavyweight slugfest after heavyweight slugfest. The Big Ten has seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, five of which are seeded a No. 5 or better.
“It was a brutal season with all the bumps and grinds,” said sophomore forward Sam Thompson, who celebrated the team’s tournament victory by hugging his parents in the stands. “I think it’s prepared us well.”
The bumps and grinds seem to have ended since that game against Wisconsin Feb. 17. The reason for the turnaround after the blowout at the Kohl Center?
“We clicked at the right time,” Thomas said while sporting a Big Ten tournament champion T-shirt and hat in OSU’s locker room. “That’s what’s good about this team. We knew we had to sacrifice for it and we did that.”
What sacrifices did the team make?
“Staying together and staying in the (offense) and playing hard and playing with effort, that’s one thing we sacrificed after that game,” Thomas said.
OSU looked like a cohesive unit throughout its time in Chicago.
Craft, who dropped 20 points against Michigan State in the tournament semifinal Saturday and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, has proved he can be a potent scorer.
Sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross and sophomore guard Shannon Scott have developed into valuable assets off the bench throughout the weekend. Thompson, a Chicago native, had 19 points in the team’s opening win against Nebraska Friday.
OSU won its final two games of the tournament with Thomas, its go-to player and the Big Ten’s leading scorer, shooting an enigmatic 12-38 from the field.
“At the beginning of the season we didn’t know who the other scorer was, now we got everybody stepping up, making big plays,” Thomas said.
Sunday’s game was, to an extent, a microcosm of the Buckeyes’ season, which started the year ranked No. 4 in the nation, fell out of the top 10 after the beatdown in Madison and now sit atop the nation’s best conference.
OSU rode its momentum from Saturday’s 61-58 win against No. 3 seed Michigan State into the beginning of its bout with the Badgers.
The Buckeyes stormed out to a 13-6 lead in the opening minutes.
Wisconsin clawed back, though, as its outside shots started to fall. The Badgers used a 14-0 run – sparked by an outside jumper from sophomore guard Traevon Jackson and a 3-pointer apiece from senior forward Mike Bruesewitz and sophomore forward Frank Kaminsky – to take a 20-13 lead, forcing a timeout from Matta.
The Badgers pushed their lead to 24-15 before Thomas propelled the Buckeyes back. The 6-foot-7 forward scored six points within the last three minutes of the first half – highlighted by a one-handed, no-jump tip-in before heading into halftime to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 24-23.
“I was kind of excited when we got down by nine today because we had a bad run and we played ourselves through it. To get it to one (point deficit) at halftime was a great feat for us. A month ago, we couldn’t have done that,” Matta said.
OSU and Wisconsin proceeded to trade blow for blow in the game’s second act.
Ross hit the Buckeyes’ first 3-pointer of the contest on the team’s ninth attempt from deep. Ross, on a later possession, was called for an offensive foul while driving to the basket, bringing Wisconsin fans to their feet with the game tied, 41-41.
Following a steal by Scott, Craft got the ball in transition and finished down low. Ross then scored OSU’s next two baskets to give the Buckeyes their biggest lead of the half, 47-41, with 2:27 left. The lanky sophomore forward scored seven points against the Badgers, all of them coming in the second half.
“I told them at the under-eight timeout, somebody just make a play, and we need someone to ignite, and LaQuinton was who that was today,” Matta said.
Three consecutive free throws made by Thomas, who led the Buckeyes with 17 points and seven rebounds in the win, all-but wrapped up the win for OSU.
Craft, who tallied nine points and six rebounds, dribbled the clock out for OSU, which celebrated modestly as the horn sounded. There were no passionate screams of joy. No leaps in jubilation.
“The fun’s just about to begin. We have to take it one game at a time and hopefully there’s more than one game that we get to play,” Craft said.
OSU is set to play No. 15 seed Iona (20-13) Friday in Dayton. If the Buckeyes win, they will play the winner of the game between No. 7 seed Notre Dame (25-9) and No. 10 seed Iowa State (22-11). If OSU gets through its first two games, it will head to Los Angeles for the West Regional semifinal and potential final. Gonzaga (31-2) is the No. 1 seed in the region.

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