CHICAGO-The tone of Ohio State’s first game in the Big Ten tournament Friday night was set early by Thad Matta.
After No. 10 seed Nebraska jumped out to an early 9-4 lead, the Buckeyes’ coach called a timeout and got in the face of his best player. Junior forward Deshaun Thomas had just taken a bad shot and fell for a pump fake on the other end of the floor that led to an easy layup for the Huskers. Matta screamed R-rated obscenities at the Big Ten’s leading scorer and sent him to the bench with 16:38 remaining in the first half-the earliest exit of the season for Thomas.
“He just kind of yelled at me and said ‘You got to get your mind right and stay together.’ I kind of said ‘What, coach?’ and he said ‘Don’t talk back,’ ” Thomas said. “That’s just part of basketball and coach being competitive.”
Thomas, who said he had never seen Matta get that visibly upset with him before, sat on the bench for roughly five minutes. When he re-entered the game with 12:06 to play, the No. 2 seed Buckeyes had already begun to respond to their coach’s adamant anger. OSU ended the first half on a 22-7 run before firmly putting the Huskers away in second half, 71-50, at the United Center in Chicago.
With the win, OSU (24-7) will play the winner of the Michigan State-Iowa game Saturday at 4 p.m.
“We got off to a slow start,” Matta said. “I thought once we focused in and got our minds where they needed to be, we were very effective, especially with our defense.”
Sparking that defense for OSU was the play of Shannon Scott and Aaron Craft. The sophomore and junior guards had two steals a piece, initiating the run OSU made in the first half to take the lead after Nebraska got up, 15-6, early on.
“We wanted to go back to playing Ohio State defense. That’s when we’re at our best,” Craft said.
Scott and Craft pressured Nebraska’s guards on the perimeter, forcing turnovers that led to easy offense for OSU. They contributed on the other end, too, with Scott totaling seven points-including five early with Thomas sitting-and four assists. Craft tallied seven points and eight assists.
“(Scott) did a phenomenal job coming in and really getting us going,” Craft said. “It wasn’t just the defense, either. He hit a pull-up and another big three that really got us going.”
The Craft-Scott duo has been propelling OSU during the team’s six-game winning streak. When they’re in the game at the same time, the Buckeyes’ intensity point seems to heighten.
“I think when we’re playing together, I get excited because I don’t have to worry about him harassing me,” Craft said, who has to play against Scott everyday in practice. “He does a great job in the gaps and things like that.”
Led by the play of their two defensive-minded guards, OSU took a 28-23 lead into the break. When the second half began, the Buckeyes wasted no time putting the game away.
OSU opened the final 20 minutes with a 26-7 run. Sophomore forward Sam Thompson, a Chicago native, opened the second half with a dunk and finished with a career-high 19 points. On the way to the game, OSU drove by Thompson’s elementary and middle schools. “That’s where it all started,” an excited Thompson told his teammates.
Thomas, who had 19 points on nine shots, followed Thompson’s jam with a jumper. Craft then drove inside and finished before Thompson slammed home another bucket.
The second half was potentially highlighted, however, by the outside shooting of LaQuinton Ross. The sophomore forward hit three-straight 3-pointers, pushing OSU’s lead to 50-28. Ross finished the game with 11 points.
Ross wasn’t the only player to get hot, though, as OSU shot 77 percent in the second half.
“In the second half, everyone went bananas,” Thomas said.
Everyone but Nebraska, anyway.
The Huskers were outscored 43-27 in the final period, with many of their points coming in mop-up duty for the Buckeyes, who played rarely-used freshman guard Amadeo Della Valle, sophomore forward Trey McDonald and walk-on Alex Rogers. Nebraska senior forward Brandon Ubel and freshman forward Shavon Shields scored 16 and 14 points, respectively.
“Their ability to get in transition and hurt us off their defensive pressure was the key to the game,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said, whose Huskers ended the season at 15-18.
For the Buckeyes, a slow start Saturday could prove to be deadly. OSU has played from behind well of late, but at this time of the year, everything needs to be firing on all cylinders.
“We don’t have any more excuses,” Craft said. “We can’t afford to not be ready to go at the beginning, otherwise, maybe we won’t be able to come back.”