INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio State was finished.
After leading by as much as eight points in the first half, Nebraska used a huge run late in the first half and into the second to surge out to a 48-30 lead with 13:45 left.
But sparked by sophomore guard Amedeo Della Valle and the scoring prowess of junior forward LaQuinton Ross, the Buckeyes fought their way all the way to steal a 71-67 win Friday and advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
“I’ll tell you what, I’m very proud of these guys and the effort that they put forth,” OSU coach Thad Matta said after the win. “We fought, we clawed, and found a way to win the basketball game.”
A dunk by junior forward Sam Thompson made the score 58-56 with 4:42 left, as OSU’s pressure defense caused problems for the Cornhuskers.
Ross made two free throws to tie the game at 63 with 1:52 remaining, and on its next possession OSU took the lead for the first time since there was one minute remaining in the first half after he made two more.
The Buckeyes were able to make enough free throws down the stretch — they shot just 17-28 from the line during the game — to secure the victory.
Matta said the come from behind win ranks with the Notre Dame game Dec. 21, where OSU came back from eight points down in the final minute to win, 64-61.
“What were we down, 18 with 10 (minutes) to go today?” Matta said. “This one was probably — the stakes were high on this one … This one was definitely up there. No question about it.”
Della Valle finished with 12 points off the bench for OSU to go along with six rebounds. He also hit a big 3-pointer that cut Nebraska’s lead to two with 2:51 to play.
“Definitely one of the toughest games for me,” Della Valle said after the game. “But I’m glad we came out with the win.”
Different from their first round victory against Purdue, the Buckeyes came out of the gate quickly against the Cornhuskers and led 11-3 after Ross buried a jumper with 14:57 left.
After a dunk by junior center Amir Williams to give OSU (25-8, 12-8) a 20-12 lead, the Cornhuskers would finish the first half on a 19-8 run over the last 8:50 to take a 31-28 advantage into the locker room.
The Buckeyes’ woes offensively toward the end of the opening half could have been a result of Nebraska (19-12, 11-8) switching to zone defense, as OSU found it difficult to get good shots inside.
Early turnovers also prevented OSU from extending the lead when it had the chance, as the Buckeyes committed nine in the game’s first 20 minutes. Nebraska also made 5-13 shots from beyond the three-point arc, compared to just 1-8 shooting by OSU.
Things didn’t get any better for the Buckeyes early in the second half, as Nebraska continued it’s scoring run to take a 36-28 lead and forcing Matta to call a timeout with 17:50 left.
Ross would hit a tough shot in the lane to stop the bleeding momentarily, but the Buckeyes struggled further to score after as Nebraska’s lead swelled to 48-30 after sophomore forward Terran Petteway made two free throws at the 13:45 mark. Ross also picked up another technical foul — his third in seven games — during the run.
But OSU would storm back with help from a stifling full court press and were able to come out on top.
Thompson — who finished the game with seven points — said that although recent games against the Cornhuskers have been close, he wouldn’t call it a rivalry with them for one simple reason.
“They haven’t beaten us enough for it to be a rivalry,” Thompson said.
Senior guard Aaron Craft said after the victory he wasn’t sure what the difference was against Nebraska, since OSU has struggled in late game situations this season to secure victories. But in all, keeping their mind right was key.
“We did a good job of never giving up, a phenomenal job of staying focused,” Craft said. “We kept looking up and seeing how much time was left on the clock.”
Ross finished with a career-high 26 points and 13 rebounds. Petteway led the Cornhuskers with 20 points.
“We stayed together through the whole thing. There was never any panic during the whole situation,” Ross said after the win. “If you watch some of our games earlier in the year, we was down less points than that, I think we were down 18 here. A couple games, like Minnesota, we (were) probably down five and we panicked but that game right there we (were) able to not panic and got through it.”
Up next, the Buckeyes are scheduled to take on rival and top-seeded Michigan Saturday with a chance to play for their sixth straight tournament championship on the line.
Tipoff is set for 1:40 p.m. from Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
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