INDIANAPOLIS — With a chance to play in their sixth straight Big Ten Conference Tournament Championship Game, all Ohio State has to do is get past its biggest rival.
After clawing back from the bowels of an 18-point deficit Friday to defeat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 71-67, the No. 5-seeded Buckeyes (25-8, 12-8) — powered by a career-high 26 points from junior forward LaQuinton Ross — now find top-seeded Michigan waiting for them in the semifinals.
The Wolverines (24-7, 16-3), survived a scare from Illinois in the quarterfinals, holding on to win 64-63 after the Fighting Illini’s last second shot fell helplessly to the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court.
In the lone regular season meeting between OSU and Michigan, the Wolverines came to Columbus Feb. 11 and slid by the Buckeyes, 70-60.
“This is a big time rivalry. Since I’ve been here that was the first time that’s happened, us only playing Michigan once and they beat us on our home court so it’s going to be a good game (Saturday),” Ross said after OSU’s victory against Nebraska. “Michigan’s a good team.”
In the matchup last month — Michigan’s first win in Columbus in 11 years — OSU led by as many as eight in the second half, before Wolverine leading scorer and sophomore guard Nik Stauskas capitalized on an offensive dry spell by the Buckeyes take the lead for good. Stauskas led Michigan with 15 points, and freshman guard Derrick Walton Jr. scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
OSU has won six of eight games since the loss, but senior guard Aaron Craft said the rivalry takes a bigger leap Saturday because it’s at the Big Ten Tournament.
“I think it’s going to mean a lot. You never want to go out losing to them. Obviously it’s a big rivalry for us and we only have to play them once,” Craft said. “You miss being able to go up there and play in front of their fans. Luckily we get them again. Not that it makes it any easier or anything like that, but it’s going to be a big game and hopefully we come ready to play.”
Michigan shot 10-30 from beyond the arc in its win Friday against Illinois, its first game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse after earning a bye in the first round. OSU ranks third in the nation in defending the 3-pointer, as its opponents are shooting just 28.5 percent from there so far this season. Keeping the Wolverines’ shooters in check is going to be a team effort, Craft said.
“Obviously they’re shooting the ball well. You’d think, first game coming in they’re not going to shoot that well with not that much time in the gym but they came out firing today,” Craft said. “It’s a team defensive game.”
The game Saturday is set to be OSU’s third in three days, and after exerting plenty of energy while applying full court pressure to get back and eventually win the game against Nebraska, the Buckeyes could be feeling the effects.
Don’t tell that to sophomore guard Amedeo Della Valle, though.
“I don’t think we’re tired at all. Our last week of practice being very intense, we did a lot of conditioning to get ready for the tournament,” Della Valle, who came off the bench to score 12 points against the Cornhuskers, said. “But we gotta be ready to stop their offense because they’re very good offensively, guys like Stauskas and (sophomore guard Caris) Levert. They can shoot threes, and we gotta play physical.”
OSU is now 21-5 all-time the Big Ten Tournament, and the matchup with the Wolverines will be its 34th game this season. With that in mind, OSU coach Thad Matta said the Buckeyes are getting to what they’ve been working for all year.
“I think that you hope, at this point of the season, all the work you’ve done dating back this year, Sept. 28, it can come to fruition,” Matta said.
With their biggest rivals standing in the way of fighting once again for Big Ten supremacy, getting up to play shouldn’t be a problem, Craft said.
“If you have to be begged to play (Saturday) than I don’t know if you should be here,” Craft said.
Tipoff is set for 1:40 p.m. Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.