Buckeyes Push Past Purdue To Quarterfinals

Ohio State overcame a sluggish start and a tighter than expected second half to advance past Purdue in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday. With their win, the Buckeyes move onto the quarterfinals, where they'll face fourth-seeded Nebraska on Friday.

The officials poured over the monitor, but deep down, Ohio State's Lenzelle Smith Jr. knew the truth: the Buckeyes still had one last possession to defend.

And with 2.8 seconds remaining on the clock and No. 5 seed Ohio State clinging to a two-point lead, Smith did just that, successfully contesting a Terone Johnson three-point attempt to preserve the Buckeyes' 63-61 victory in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. Just moments prior, a replay had confirmed that a Ronnie Johnson missed free throw careened off Smith's hands and out of bound, allowing the 12th-seeded Boilermakers to maintain possession and attempt a would-be game-winner.

"I hit the ball out," Smith admitted. "We knew what we needed to do to win."

That included Smith fighting through a bone-crushing screen from Purdue center A.J. Hammons in order to get a hand in the face of Johnson, the Boilermakers' leading scorer and a 36 percent three-point shooter. The 7-0, 251-pound Hammons provided a formidable roadblock, but Smith ultimately found his way around the Boilermaker big man.

"In my history here, that was as good of a screen as any," Smith said. "Hammons obviously is huge. At that point, I had a decision to stay on the screen and call for help or try to fight around it as much as possible.

"Luckily, I just kept fighting."

The Buckeyes found themselves on the brink of an opening round upset after opting to foul Ronnie Johnson while clinging to a two-point lead with fewer than three seconds remaining on the clock. Johnson made the first attempt before intentionally missing the second, which led to the ball bouncing off of Smith's hands to set up the other Johnson's would-be game-winner.

"I mean, what a unique play because Lenzelle said, he goes, ‘It's off me,'" Ohio State head coach Thad Matta recalled. "So then we were able to kind of set what we were going to do next."

The Buckeyes found themselves fortunate to walk away with a win and advance to the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals after a sluggish start saw Ohio State fall behind by a score of 7-1 in the game's opening 2:30. Aaron Craft, Smith and LaQuinton Ross all battled back with layups to tie the game at seven, before a Craft layup capped a 10-2 run to give the Buckeyes an 11-9 advantage.

"I didn't like the way we started the game in terms of just the baskets we were giving them," Matta said. "We made some ridiculous mental mistakes defensively, and we didn't do a good job taking care of the basketball."

Neither team managed to gain more than a three-point lead through the game's opening 15 minutes, but a Smith three pushed Ohio State's advantage to five and a Sam Thompson jumper topped off a 7-0 run to stretch the Buckeyes' advantage to 26-19 with 3:39 remaining in the opening half. A Basil Smotherman dunk cut OSU's lead to one with 50 seconds left on the clock before a Ross jumper with five seconds left sent the Buckeyes to the locker room holding onto a 30-27 advantage.

"You know, that's just how we play Purdue, like every time we play them," Craft said of the game's closely contested nature. "We know they're going to come out and play hard and play physical."

The second half proved to be even more back and forth than the first was.

Ohio State stretched its lead to four in the half's opening 2:30 before a 6-0 Boilermaker run marked the first of what was 10 lead changes in the second stanza. After Ohio State tied the game at 36 with 15:56 left on the clock with a Ross layup, the two teams traded leads for the next six minutes with neither squad extending its advantage to more than two points until an Errick Peck layup put Purdue up three with just under 10 minutes to go in the game.

A Hammons free throw pushed the Boilermakers' advantage to four with eight minutes left on the clock, but was followed by a 12-3 Ohio State run that was capped by a Thompson alley-oop dunk from Craft. With a five-point lead in tow with 2:08 to go in the game, the Buckeyes prepared to walk away with the win, but Purdue wasn't out of fight just yet.

Kendall Stephens connected on two free throws to trim Ohio State's lead to three before a Ronnie Johnson layup inched the Boilermakers within one. Purdue appeared poised to take the upper hand when Hammons rebounded a Craft miss with 1:04 left on the clock, but the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year swooped in to steal the ball back and regain possession for the Buckeyes.

"Aaron's steal down on the baseline -- I don't know what their record is in this tournament, but I'm sure it's pretty impressive," Matta said of his seniors. "You hear both guys saying, ‘We're not going home, we're not going home' and those guys did a great job."

From there, Smith extended his team's lead to three with a pair of free throws with 28 seconds left on the clock, which were negated by a Hammons layup 10 seconds later. Craft split a pair of free throws before Smith did the same after stealing the ball from Terone Johnson, which led to Ohio State ultimately sweating out the final five seconds of the game.

"Right now at this point, we're 1-0 in the Big Ten tournament. We're trying to get good positioning for the NCAA Tournament obviously," Smith said. "Right now, we're still here. Live to fight another day, survive and advance. That's what we did today. Ugly win or not, we're still here."

Ross led the way with 19 points and 14 rebounds for the Buckeyes, while Craft added 16 points and five assists to the OSU cause. Hammons paced Purdue with 15 points and nine rebounds in an effort that will likely bring the 15-17 Boilermakers' season to an end.

With their opening round win, Ohio State advances to the conference tournament quarterfinals where they will meet a fourth-seeded Nebraska squad who beat the Buckeyes in Lincoln on Jan. 20. OSU's loss to the Cornhuskers left a sour taste in the mouth of many Buckeyes, who still remember the Nebraska fans storming the court after the upset victory.

"They beat us this year already. I'm pretty sure they think they can beat us again," Smith said of the Huskers. "If we come with our mind right, I think they got something different in store."

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