INDIANAPOLIS — It felt all too familiar.
Ohio State, after jumping out to an eight-point lead in the first half against Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals Friday, had all but reverted back to the form Buckeye fans have grown accustomed to seeing this season.
A 36-10 run by the Cornhuskers stretching from the end of the first half, into the second saw the Buckeyes lead disappear, and the good feelings of shooting the ball well in the first half along with it.
But this time was different. This time, the Buckeyes (25-8, 11-8) found their legs and a little something extra down the stretch and roared back to beat Nebraska (19-12, 11-8), 71-67.
Instead of wilting late in the game like they have so often this season — at Michigan State, at Nebraska and against Michigan to name a few games — OSU found it’s bearing and was able to put the wheels back on to secure a win. It appears the Buckeyes could have finally taken that much needed needed step forward to team maturity at this, the most important time of the season.
“I hope so … But we need to stop going through things like this,” senior guard Aaron Craft said on his team’s late-game mojo. “Competition gets better, competition gets better every game. We can’t expect to turn it on when we want to. That’s how we lost in the NCAA Tournament last year.”
The game OSU’s leader was referring to was the 70-66 loss to Wichita State in the Elite Eight, where the Buckeyes trailed by as many as 20 before an attempted comeback fell just short and their season ended.
Although the Cornhuskers only stretched the lead to 18 Friday, a similar comeback was needed by OSU.
Junior guard Shannon Scott — who committed four turnovers just in the first half alone — helped spark the rally along with sophomore guard Amedeo Della Valle, scoring six of his nine points in the game’s final 20 minutes.
Scott said the mindset of the team when they looked up at the scoreboard and found itself down 18 points was to just take things one step at a time.
“We know there’s not 20-point baskets, so we’ve got to take every possession one at a time,” Scott said after the win. “We’ve got to get a stop. And once we started doing that, we really got pride in our offense and that really got us going.”
After committing just three turnovers in the first half, Nebraska coughed up the ball eight more times after halftime due in large part to the Buckeyes’ full court pressure.
“It seemed to work pretty well for us, especially down the stretch making them call timeouts and stuff like that,” Craft said of the press. “It can get tiring as well. It’s kind of a hit and miss, but if you got the adrenaline rolling like we did you kind of feed off that.”
With the adrenaline pumping through their veins, OSU made the plays it needed down the stretch — including hitting eight straight free throws in the final two minutes after shooting 9-20 prior to then in the game.
“I think in this tournament, as you saw, players make plays. Even for Nebraska, some of the plays those guys made were, wow,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “But I think that you hope at this point of the season, all the work you’ve done … can come into fruition. You’ve seen it across the country. There’s been a lot of ups and downs in these tournament.”
Such up and down trends during the course of a game can cause frustration for any player — Buckeye leading scorer junior forward LaQuinton Ross was pegged with his third technical foul in seven games after shoving a Nebraska player after a play — but this time OSU came away on the right side of things when it was all said and done.
“We’ve been in this situation before with Nebraska, Michigan State and other times in the season as well but we were able to just keep our composure down the stretch,” junior center Amir Williams said postgame. “We didn’t panic, continued to fight and we were able to come away with it.”
With a showdown with top-seeded rival Michigan looming Saturday in the semifinals at 1:40 p.m., avoiding a stretch like the one that caused them to fall behind by 18 to the Cornhuskers is critical. But doing so will be easier senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said, because of where the team is mentally.
“We’re a lot different, we’re not self destructive and falling apart. We’re not selfish anymore, we’re fighting for one another and that’s all that matters for us,” Smith Jr. said after the game. “We’re playing for Ohio State and the guys in this locker room, at this point we’re the only ones that matter and as long as we can look each other in the eyes after the game we’re happy with that.”