INDIANAPOLIS — Survive and advance.
Seemingly a mantra for every team when it comes to March, it supports the idea that it doesn’t matter how well a team plays as long as it wins.
“If you win I don’t think it matters how you play … Obviously you want to win in a fashion this program is used to,” Ohio State senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said after the Buckeyes (24-8, 10-8) shoved off Purdue, 63-61, in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. “The guys before us, they worked so hard for us to get to this point and it’s on us to carry the torch. We definitely don’t want to have ugly wins. So we just gotta come play basketball.”
Junior forward Sam Thompson echoed his teammate, saying although the Buckeyes would rather play better than they did Thursday, a win is a win.
“We want to play our best basketball to put ourselves in the best position to win … but at the end of the day we live to fight another day, we have a chance to play tomorrow and that’s all that matters,” Thompson said after the win.
The victory against the Boilermakers was particularly worrisome for Smith Jr., as the Buckeyes allowed a late five-point lead to evaporate and give Purdue a chance to win it at the buzzer with a 3-point attempt by senior guard Terone Johnson.
“Quite frankly, that team (OSU) that you saw right there is the team that gets beat,” Smith Jr. said. “We were able to pull away, we live to fight another day and we definitely gotta come play basketball tomorrow.”
The Buckeyes are used to playing in close games down at the buzzer, but earlier in the season the results weren’t always in favor of coach Thad Matta’s squad.
Matta said the experience from playing in so many close games has helped OSU push itself over the edge for the victory.
“Well, as I told these guys walking out, it’s good to see us win one of these ugly games,” Matta said after the win against Purdue. “We’ve been in this position, couldn’t finish them out.”
Senior guard Aaron Craft agreed, adding that the Buckeyes just did what they had to for the win.
“There definitely were times we’ve played a little tentative down the stretch,” Craft said. “We’ve been in a couple games like this where you turn the ball over a little bit more than you think you should, and everyone is kind of just doing what they want. It’s (about) finding a way, and, hopefully, those games we played earlier in the year have helped us to this point, especially if we get another game like that. It doesn’t matter how ugly the game is at this point, it’s all about trying to find a way to keep playing, and luckily we’re able to do that again.”
In the game against Purdue as well as the season finale with Michigan State — OSU won each by two points — the Buckeyes were 6-12 from the free throw line with less than a minute to play.
Although by missing the free throws OSU gave their opponents chances to tie or win the game, Smith Jr. said he isn’t worried about the Buckeyes missing their shots.
“A lot of that stuff is mental,” Smith Jr. said. “I think when we’re playing like this it’s fitting. Obviously when we have a tougher game like this it seems like our free throws never seem to go down. Guys aren’t locked in, not engaged, minds not right to make free throws. But I’m not worried about. We practice free throws, so I know that clutch moments mean something when we step to the line and make them.”
Next up OSU will take on Nebraska at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, approximately 25 minutes after the finish of Michigan against Illinois.
Craft said in the past OSU has fought through tough first games in the Big Ten Tournament, just to come out and play well the next day, but there is no guarantee that happens again.
“This is now my fourth Big Ten Tournament, and luckily, in the past, we’ve done a better job the next game when we come out. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to do that this year,” Craft said. “It’s a different year, and we need to take it upon ourselves to find a way to get ready, and it’s going to be a quick turnaround for us, obviously, so hopefully our young bodies can take it, and we’ve just go to move forward.”