It was by no means pretty, and the victory wasn’t official until a desperate heave by Wisconsin clanked off the rim at the final buzzer, but it was exactly what the Ohio State men’s basketball team needed.
Coming into Saturday’s 59-58 win against the Badgers, No. 24 OSU (17-5, 4-5) had lost five of its last six games, including falling to Penn State for the first time under coach Thad Matta.
And were it not for that missed 3-pointer at the buzzer by Wisconsin sophomore forward Sam Dekker, that stretch of frustration could have been even worse.
Matta said the Buckeyes expected Wisconsin junior guard Traevon Jackson to take the shot at the end of the game, but he had to shove it off to Dekker because senior guard Aaron Craft gave him no space to work. Junior forward LaQuinton Ross defended Dekker once the ball got to him, and Matta recognized him for the defense he played on the final possession.
“The one thing we know about Traevon — he’s a heck of a basketball player, and he likes big shots and he loves the ball at the end of the shot clock and at the end of the game,” Matta said after the game. “I mean, what, has he hit like 19 game-winners in his three years here? So we knew and we told our guys, ‘He’s probably going to take the shot,’ and LaQuinton did an incredible job of stunting, getting back and challenging the three (once the ball got to Dekker).”
With the exclusion of their first loss of the season — Jan. 7 against then-No. 5 Michigan State, 72-68 — the Buckeyes have struggled in the final five minutes of games.
In each of their other four losses, OSU floundered down the stretch, particularly in holding leads against Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State.
Against the No. 14 Badgers (17-5, 4-5) it was OSU who had to come from behind and capitalize on late game mistakes. In the game’s final 10:55, the Buckeyes did not take the lead until there was 1:36 left on the clock.
Wisconsin failed to hit a single field goal in the final 6:42, something Matta attributed to an increase in pressure from the Buckeyes.
“I think from the standpoint of we had very good activity, I thought guys were reading things and we were pressuring the ball where we needed it,” Matta said. “Probably the biggest thing was we gave quick help and got back and challenged what we needed to challenge.”
He added that the players capitalized more on the opportunities they were given late in the game.
“I thought we executed better down the stretch in terms of getting what we were trying to get out of our offense,” Matta said. “We were telling guys, ‘You’re going to have to take a big shot. You’re going to have to make a big play. You’re going to have to make a big free throw.’ I think that was kind of the difference, just more execution.”
Despite the success in the end, OSU almost let another late game lead slip away. After Jackson missed the second of two free throws with less than 20 seconds left, senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. missed a wide open layup and turned the ball over on the ensuing offensive rebound when he fell to the ground and was called for traveling.
With the Badgers in control of the ball with a shot to win the game, Craft said the team knew what it had to do.
“We got in the huddle and looked each other in the eye and said ‘Hey, we need one stop.’ We couldn’t do that the last game out. We wanted to find a way to get it done today,” Craft said after the win.
Next up, the Buckeyes are set to take on No. 15 Iowa (17-5, 6-3) Tuesday on the road, a team that beat OSU, 84-74, Jan. 12 at the Schottenstein Center.
Although OSU is coming off a big victory, Craft said the celebration is going to be short-lived as attention switches to the Hawkeyes.
“Our biggest focus now is enjoying this,” Craft said. “We’ll enjoy this for half a day and then we have another tough one on Tuesday. There’s not too much over-thinking going on. It’s find a way to be better than Iowa. That’s our only thought.”