"The other day in practice I was talking to Brandon (Fuss-Cheatham) and we said how unbelievable it would be to score 25 points and hit the game winner against Illinois," Sylvester said. "I swear."
Sylvester's dream became reality Sunday as he had a career-high 25 points and nailed a three-point jumper with 5.1 seconds left to lift the Buckeyes to a 65-64 win over the previously unbeaten Fighting Illini.
"It feels so good, I can't even describe it," Sylvester admitted afterwards. "I felt really comfortable today. The fans were incredible. We played with a lot of energy."
After trailing by as many as 12 points in the second half, OSU had whittled the margin down to two at 64-62 when it called timeout with 12 seconds left.
OSU coach Thad Matta recalled his thought process as his team – which is ineligible for postseason play beyond next week's Big Ten tournament – prepared for its final possession.
"We met real quick and each coach gave me a little bit of their thoughts," Matta said. "I listened to them for a split second and said, `Blank that, we're going for the win.'
"Then, I went into the huddle and I said, `Gentlemen, we're going for the win.' And I think they were as excited as I've ever seen them. They executed the play about as well as they could have.
"Matt told me as he left the huddle, `Coach, I will make this shot,' and he did."
After inbounding the ball, OSU set up a play with Fuss-Cheatham dribbling out top. Senior guard Tony Stockman, who has taken a number of last shots for the Buckeyes over the past two years, cut from the right baseline over a double screen provided by Sylvester and center Terence Dials.
Sylvester then stepped out unguarded, caught the pass from Fuss-Cheatham and calmly swished the three-point dagger to give the Buckeyes their first lead of the game.
"Tony was the decoy," Sylvester said. "Tony is a great shooter and they were looking at him. There was no doubt he was getting the ball. Terence had a great screen. They pinched in on him and before they realized we weren't going there, I had already let the ball go."
Did he have a good feeling about the shot when he let it fly?
"Once I opened my eyes back up …" Sylvester joked. "I don't know what I felt. It didn't feel great coming out of my hand. I guess God was on our side today."
What made Matta sure that Sylvester would be the one to make the game winner?
"Because he made it the other day in practice," Matta said. "I knew it would be good for him. I was nervous because they had been switching. Terence set a tremendous screen. We went with Matt because we felt like he could see over the defense and we knew Matt could pass it if it wasn't there. Terence would be rolling to the paint.
"But Matt was really rolling. He was playing his rear end off."
Indeed, he was. Sylvester ended up 8 of 17 from the floor and 2 of 5 on three-pointers. Plus, he had just taken Illini center James Augustine off the dribble a minute earlier to cut the game down to 64-62.
Sylvester entered the game for starting power forward Ivan Harris five minutes into the game – and never came out.
"If he had taken me out, there may have been a fistfight there on the sideline," Sylvester joked.
After Sylvester had taken Augustine to the hole, the Illini put quicker guard Deron Williams on him. But the Illini weren't expecting Matta to go for the game winner.
"They went for the jugular," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "They went for the win. We thought they would go inside to Dials. But they had nothing to lose. They went for the big one. They got to celebrate and get out on the floor.
"They had a guy go through. Deron thought somebody should have switched."
The 25-point game marked the seventh time in 15 Big Ten games that Sylvester has been in double digits.
"We think Sylvester has been one of the most improved kids around when you watch the film," Weber said. "He played the game of his life tonight and hit the big shot."
Foster Trey Was Key
Another play in this game that was also critical came after Augustine completed a three-point play to put the Illini up 60-53 with 6:11 left.
OSU had a fast break opportunity. Fuss-Cheatham passed ahead to Stockman, who had an opening to go to the basket. But he flipped the ball back to Foster, who drained a critical three-pointer to trim the gap to 60-56 with 5:29 left.
"I was open on the break," Stockman said. "Fuss spotted me and as I looked back, I saw ‘Kel out of the corner of my eye. He had his feet set and had a better shot."
Foster added, "I knew he saw me. I was concentrating on getting there. I knew he was going to pass it to me. I got my feet set and took the shot."
Foster, who finished with 10 points, then added a critical steal with 3:37 left. Illinois guard Dee Brown landed on him and fouled him in a scrum for the ball. Foster's two free throws trimmed the gap to 62-58, setting the stage for OSU's fantastic finish.
The Highlight Reel
Matta told reporters he had the team view highlights of some of basketball's greatest upsets following the morning shootaround.
"(Video coordinator) Dave (Egelhoff) put together an edit tape of all the miracle upsets," Matta said. "We had them watch that after practice today. I think that helped us a little bit to see all the teams doing what we were trying to do."
Some of the games featured included the upset by Matta's Xavier team of then-No. 1 St. Joseph's a year ago as well as UConn's 1999 NCAA title win over Duke, Duke's 1991 NCAA title win over UNLV and improbable NBA playoff series wins by eighth-seeded teams from Seattle and New York.
After losing three straight – including a lackluster home loss to Wisconsin last Sunday – Matta was looking for a spark.
"We just continued to coach them," he said. "We weren't practicing hard enough. We still had some things we wanted to do. But I said today, `This is the No. 1 team. I shouldn't have to say anything for this one.' "
A Program Win
This is the type of victory that Matta has to hope recruits take note of. In fact, Dayton Dunbar's Daequan Cook – one of the nation's top 10 junior prospects – attended the game.
The Buckeyes hope they can parlay this win into success in the Big Ten tournament, where they open against 11th-seeded Penn State Thursday. A win there would put the Buckeyes against third-seeded Wisconsin in the quarterfinals on Friday.
"I think it's kind of scary to have a big win like this," Sylvester said. "It can energize you to keep going to the top. Or you can get complacent and go down. But I think with the attitude and spirit of this team it can only go up.
"I think this reflects where the Ohio State program is going. Coach Matta and his staff are doing an incredible job."
OSU loses Stockman, Fuss-Cheatham and seldom used center Matt Marinchick. Dials believes this win shows OSU can be a force in the Big Ten and nationally next year.
"This gives us some confidence and a little bit of momentum," he said. "We can play with anybody in the Big Ten. That was the best team in the country. Next year, we can try to win a national championship."
But Matta wasn't ready to let this season go just yet.
"I don't want this season to end with these guys," Matta said. "We're going to Chicago and, regardless of how we do, we know the season is over."
Weber added his two cents: "They're an NCAA Tournament team, I think."
A Raise, Already?
New OSU athletic director Gene Smith and his family were introduced to the Value City Arena crowd to polite applause at halftime.
Matta said Smith visited with the team after the historic win.
"He came in and talked very quick to the team," Matta said. "He was very gracious for their effort and was very excited. It's got to be a great first day on the job for him."