It may not have been pretty, but wins this time of year rarely are. But no matter how it looked, Ohio State managed to survive and advance past Purdue with a 63-61 win over the Boilermakers in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. BuckeyeSports.com beat writer Ben Axelrod provides his final thoughts on the Buckeyes' latest victory and what it means for them moving forward.
Some final thoughts from Ohio State
's 63-61 Big Ten tournament win over Purdue
, just as I go to the monitor.
"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. 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." - Buckeyes guard Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Once postseason play commences, the intensity doesn't only change for the players, but the media as well. Our views of the game are shifted from the sometimes obstructed and often distant corner stands to courtside seats placed directly behind the teams' benches and the scorer's table.
I bring this up because the thing that immediately caught my attention from my seat no less than 10 feet from Thad Matta's was a moment that took place just minutes into the Buckeyes' battle with the Boilermakers. As Ohio State fell behind by a 7-1 score, assistant coach Dave Dickerson turned to the Buckeyes' bench, demanding that his team "wake up," only his language was a bit more colorful. From the opening tip, it was clear that OSU had not brought its A-game as it sleepwalked its way to a victory.
The only Buckeyes who seemed active for the game's full 40 minutes were Aaron Craft and LaQuinton Ross -- arguably the two engines that make Ohio State go. Craft certainly took a more active role on the offensive end, scoring 16 points on 16 shots and Ross posted 19 points to go along with a career best 14 rebounds. The numbers may not back up this notion, but the Buckeyes seem to move as Ross does, so his attentive play was certainly encouraging for Ohio State moving forward.
With Ross having scored at least 19 points in each of the Buckeyes' past four games, it's also worth noting that this was the time last season that he hit his stride and brought OSU within minutes of the Final Four. "That's what I'm going to try to do every night," Ross said of his performance. "I'm trying to do everything that I can to help my team win."
As for the bad, Ohio State shot just 35.9 percent from the field against the Big Ten's last-place team and went just 1-for-14 from beyond the three-point arc. Perhaps most concerning -- again -- is that the Buckeyes connected on just 16 of their 25 attempts (64 percent) from the charity stripe and I don't think that it would surprise anybody to see a similar number lead to a premature exit in the NCAA Tournament.
Amir Williams' performance was one of his lesser of the season and Boilermakers big man A.J. Hammons seemed to have his way with the Ohio State center on both ends of the floor. We know what Williams is, so it's unrealistic to expect him to be a consistent post presences at this point in the season, although it was his defense on the final inbounds pass of the game that prevented Purdue from throwing a lob to Hammons for what could have been a game-tying shot.
Speaking of the final play of the game, I know hindsight is 20/20, but I don't think I agree with Matta's decision to intentionally send Purdue to the free throw line while up by three in the game's closing seconds. I know that the percentages disagree with me, but considering that the Boilermakers were for 2-for-9 from beyond the arc at that point in the game, I would have taken my chances making them make a tough shot.
As we saw, Purdue ultimately had a chance to tie the game, as Ronnie Johnson split a pair of free throws before the ball bounced off of Smith and gave the Boilermakers possession underneath the basket with 2.8 seconds left on the clock. That certainly put the Buckeyes in a difficult predicament as Smith successfully contested what would have been a game-winning three by Terone Johnson.
Matta on his decision to foul at that point in the game: "Aaron told me standing on the sideline, Vegas odds say 60.8 percent or whatever it was. I was saying I wasn't going to do it if there was too much time, then when it got to 5-point whatever it was, I said let's do it... obviously it worked itself out.
Looking ahead to tomorrow's quarterfinal matchup with Nebraska, I know that the Buckeyes were a five-seed acting like a one-seed on Thursday, but I don't expect that to be the case tomorrow. The fourth-seeded Cornhuskers clearly have Ohio State's attention, with multiple players bringing up the Nebraska fans rushing the court after the Huskers' upset win in Lincoln in January. Whether that will materialize into anything more than a nice quote at the end of my game story remains to be seen, but I'd be surprised if the Buckeyes again overlooked their upcoming opponent.
As for what to take away from the close contest with Purdue, I know it's cliche -- and has already been stated in this piece -- but surviving and advancing is really all that matters this time of year. The Buckeyes have won three of the past four Big Ten tournament titles -- albeit with more talented teams -- but even those squads struggled to get to Sunday. It's hard to imagine OSU extending its streak of title game appearances to six after what we saw on Thursday, but momentum in March can change in the blink of an eye, which is why the Buckeyes' showdown with the Huskers could prove to be so pivotal moving forward.