Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
LOS ANGELES–One bad half of basketball, and the season will likely be over.
That was the message Thad Matta sent to his No. 2-seeded Buckeyes just before the NCAA Tournament started. The 45-year-old coach knows from experience. OSU collapsed in the second half of a Final Four loss to Kansas in New Orleans last year and to Kentucky in the same scenario in the Sweet 16 a season prior to that.
Saturday, in an Elite Eight game against Wichita State at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, it happened again.
The Buckeyes stumbled out of the gate, allowing the No. 9-seeded Shockers to race out to a 13-point lead in the first half. Wichita State’s lead ballooned to 20 points in the second half before OSU fought back. Led by junior forward Deshaun Thomas and his 23 points, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall saw his team’s lead shrink to three points with less than two minutes left.
But the comeback was too little, too late for an OSU squad attempting to reach its third Final Four in seven seasons. Marshall and the Shockers escaped, 70-66, as Wichita State reached its first Final Four since 1965.
“We always try to fight back. We did it throughout this tournament, throughout this year, but today it was just too big to overcome,” said sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross, who had 19 points in defeat.
Friday, OSU players repeatedly dismissed the idea that Wichita State was a “Cinderella” whose time was about to run out, glass slipper ready to shatter.
The Shockers proved the Buckeyes right in the first twenty minutes, possibly even to a surprising extent.
“They’re a great team, better than I thought,” Ross said.
Wichita State was physical, outmuscling and out-rebounding the Buckeyes from the get-go.
“They did a good job of packing it in, somewhat kind of like Wisconsin, kind of like that,” said junior guard Aaron Craft. “They had a couple shot blockers, a little better than the ones at Wisconsin, obviously.”
Wichita State had 13 offensive rebounds and blocked nine OSU shots.
Matta, possibly noticing his team’s season slipping away, called a timeout when Wichita State pushed its lead to 10 in the first half. In the huddle, Matta clapped his hands, pointed his fingers, yelled and screamed, trying everything to propel his players back into the game.
That sense of urgency Matta hoped to instill into the Buckeyes during the previous timeout showed up late in the second half, but Wichita State always seemed to have an answer.
Sophomore guard Tekele Cotton hit a 3-pointer from the left corner as the shot clock was expiring after OSU had cut the deficit to three following a Ross 3-pointer. Cotton got an offensive rebound with 1:34 remaining and the score, 65-61, that allowed the Shockers to run critical seconds off the clock before freshman guard Fred VanVleet hit a layup with one minute to go.
The sense of desperation hurt the Buckeyes to an extent during the second half.
“We had dug ourselves in such a hole. We were compromising a lot of different things. They countered what we were doing,” Matta said.
Bad half or not, OSU’s players said they never doubted they weren’t going to make a comeback and win the game.
“Even though we were down by so many points, we still had the feeling that we were going to be OK. You think as long as you play, it’s not going to happen to you and you’re not going to lose the game,” said junior forward Lenzelle Smith Jr.
It did happen to Smith and the rest of his teammates, though, and the Buckeyes have a bad first 20 minutes of basketball to blame.
“We just have to come back stronger next year, that’s the only thing you can think of right now,” Ross said.