It may not have been obvious early in Ohio State’s 73-62 overtime win over Akron, but the Buckeyes are looking to make the most of their NIT opportunity. They proved that by gutting out an overtime victory over the MAC regular-season champion Tuesday to extend their season.
The reward is a date with second-seeded Florida Sunday at noon, a game that No. 3 Ohio State will host due to construction on the O’Connell Center, the Gators home arena.
“Hopefully they understand the value of continuing to play and getting a win like this tonight,” Matta said after the first-round win. “It was a great college basketball game and happy for our guys to continue to play.”
Ohio State looks to keep it going tomorrow against Florida (20-14) as the Gators come to Columbus fresh off a 97-68 opening-round NIT win over North Florida. The Gators, however, did not escape that game without a loss. John Egbunu, Florida’s starting center, had season-ending thumb surgery Thursday to repair a torn ligament, an injury that he had been playing with late in the season.
The sophomore has six double-doubles on the season, including a 13-point, 10-rebound effort against the Ospreys with a wrap on his right hand. He was Florida’s second-leading scorer (11.5 ppg) and rebounder (6.5).
“He’s a heck of a player just watching them," Matta said. "I don’t wish ill on anybody, but he has a chance to be a difference maker down there so I hate that for him at this point of the year.”
That leaves Florida, which finished tied for eighth in the SEC at 9-9, with forward Dorian Finney-Smith inside. The 6-8 senior averages a team-high 14.9 points per game with 8.3 rebounds. Freshman guard KeVaughn Allen chips in 11.4 points per game for the Gators.
The Gators and Buckeyes have a few common opponents this season as Michael White’s team lost to Purdue (85-70 on Nov. 22) and Michigan State (58-52 on Dec. 12), a pair of teams that combined to beat Ohio State four times this season. Florida’s best win of the season is an 88-71 win over West Virginia, a team that earned a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators also have wins over NCAA Tournament teams Florida Gulf Coast and Saint Joseph’s, though they ended the regular season losing four of their last five before splitting a pair of games in the SEC Tournament.
“I mean to me they’re another team that we have to go out and compete against," Marc Lovig said. "There’s nothing like we gotta play any much harder against these guys or anything like that. We took a look at them on film and they’re a pretty good team, they play very hard and we just got to come out with our minds in the right place from the beginning.”
The Buckeyes, of course, are without forward Jae’Sean Tate as he has been out since Feb. 23. They are also uncertain whether they will have Keita Bates-Diop back in the lineup after the sophomore missed the Akron game with an illness.
While Ohio State would be better off with Bates-Diop back in the fold, the Buckeyes will likely go as JaQuan Lyle does, as it has for much of the season. Lyle played all but one minute of the overtime win against Akron and finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
“You can’t let things affect what happens going forward,” Matta said of Lyle’s mindset. “That’s one of the things we talked with JaQuan about. I thought quite honestly he did a pretty good job tonight in terms of the reads he was making and from that perspective I’m proud of him for how he played through not making a couple early.”
Lyle vowed to carry that attitude forward, one that he and the entire team must have to keep their season going.
“Nobody in the locker room wants to see our season come to an end,” he said.