The Buckeyes, fresh off an upset of No. 1-ranked Illinois on Sunday, had to rally from down 15 in the second half before holding on for a 72-69 win in a Big Ten men's basketball tournament opening round game Thursday at Chicago's United Center.
Yes, that's right: After beating an Illinois team that was 29-0 on Sunday, Ohio State was nearly sent packing by a Penn State team that had won a grand total of one Big Ten game during the regular season.
"I'm glad that game is over," said OSU coach Thad Matta, who saw his first Buckeyes team improve to 20-11. "You have to give Penn State credit. They took us out of a lot of things we wanted to do. We didn't have the energy we needed to play in this game. But somehow some way we found a way to win this basketball game.
"We never got five guys playing offensively and defensively together. It was just one of those outings."
The sixth-seeded Buckeyes (20-11) survived to take on third-seeded Wisconsin in a quarterfinal match-up at 9:10 p.m. Friday (ESPN-Plus).
After trailing 35-24 at halftime, Ohio State found itself in a 47-32 hole after PSU's Danny Morrissey made a three-point shot with 14:44 left. But this is where OSU went to work. The Buckeyes gradually chipped away at the lead and finally grabbed it at 57-54 on Tony Stockman's three-pointer with 4:45 left. Penn State rallied to tie the game at 59-59, but OSU outscored PSU 13-10 in the final 2:54.
Stockman, in a funk since he was benched midway through the Big Ten portion of his senior season, led OSU with 25 points. He was 10 of 20 from the floor, including 4 of 11 on three-pointers. He had 19 of those points during OSU's second-half rally.
"I was feeling like if this was going to be my last game, I was going to enjoy it," said Stockman, who averaged 5.7 points in the last seven games after averaging 13.6 in the first 23. "I knew we had to be aggressive. I came out aggressive and got some shots to go down."
Je'Kel Foster added 13 points, four rebounds and three assists. J.J. Sullinger scored all 11 of his points in the second half for OSU, hitting a pair of clutch three-pointers and also grabbing a steal and converting it into a slam during the comeback.
"I think J.J.'s plays definitely got us going," Matta said. "The threes he hit and the steal he got, those were all big and they gave us some momentum."
Sullinger added, "I had some open looks and took them and I was fortunate they went down."
The game figured to be nail-biter anyway. OSU had only beaten Penn State by six and 10 points in their two meetings. And, just as what happened in the first game between the teams in Columbus, PSU succeeded in bottling up OSU's Terence Dials. Dials, OSU's second-team All-Big Ten center, had six points on 1-of-6 shooting from the floor and grabbed nine rebounds.
"I knew they were going to do this," said Dials, who was OSU's leading scorer at 16.4 points per game during the regular season. "They played a guard on the back side of me. I was prepared for the double teams and triple teams. Our guards played smart. When Penn State tried to take me out of what I wanted to do, they tried to bring some other things to the table."
Travis Parker led Penn State (7-23) with 21 points and five rebounds. Freshman Geary Claxton added 20 points and 13 rebounds for the Nittany Lions. OSU got after PSU in the second half, holding the Lions to 33.3 percent shooting (8 of 24) and harassing them into 13 turnovers.
"Coach was getting on us to pick it up and we did," Stockman said of OSU's second half rally, which included runs of 9-2 and 18-2.
After the rousing 65-64 win over the Illini, Matta and his players said they would fight the temptation to have a letdown. But it was apparent from the first two minutes of the game that OSU was in for the fight of its life against a team that was desperate for any kind of positive ending.
"I didn't know that would happen until I saw the first couple of minutes," a hoarse Matta said. "We had two good practices. It's hard to figure out how guys are thinking. I was a little bit disappointed in them and their effort at the beginning. But I made sure to commend them on the tail end (of the game).
"But Penn State played today. They came out and knocked us on our heels."
Nothing went Ohio State's way in the first 20 minutes. Penn State attacked the basket and kept the OSU defense off guard, shooting 62.5 percent (15 of 24) from the floor. PSU got 24 of its 35 first-half points in the paint. Claxton had 11 of his points and Parker scored eight in the first half.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes could not solve PSU's variety of zone defenses and shot just 33.3 percent (9 of 27) from the floor and committed 11 turnovers.
It would have to be considered one of OSU's worst halves of basketball in recent memory.
"Coach Matta is a competitive guy," Dials said. "He told us flat out we were not playing our hardest. But every time he gets on us, we seem to pick it up."
Penn State got out to quick leads of 7-3 and 16-5. In this stretch, Parker had six points and Claxton had five, including a three-point play that gave PSU its 11-point bulge with 12:49 left in the half.
Ohio State rallied with a 10-5 spurt, keyed by a pair of three-pointers from Foster to cut the lead down to 22-17 with 8:06 left in the half.
But Penn State answered by reeling off 10 straight points. After a Stockman miss, Claxton went to the other end and scoring on a driving layup in transition. Parker then made a jumper in the lane. Then, after a Foster turnover, Mike Walker had a layup. Claxton made a pair of free throws, then, after a Jamar Butler turnover, had another driving layup to give PSU its biggest lead of the half at 32-17 with 4:30 left.
OSU's senior guards, Stockman and Fuss-Cheatham, kept the Buckeyes in it at the end of the half. Stockman made a spinning bank shot and a tough jumper in the lane, while Fuss-Cheatham's three-point play with 1:17 left capped the first half scoring and cut the Penn State lead to 35-24.
In the second half, the Buckeyes fought and clawed but it took a while before they cut put a dent in the lead. In fact, PSU grabbed its largest lead after Parker grabbed an offensive rebound and made a three-pointer and Morrissey followed with a trey to put the Lions up 47-32 with 14:44 left.
The Buckeyes answered with a 9-2 run, including a three-point play by Matt Sylvester and treys from Jamar Butler and Sullinger, to trim the gap to 49-41 with 11:04 left. But Claxton's three-point play with 10:28 left gave Penn State its last double-digit lead at 52-41.
This is when Ohio State embarked on its 18-2 run, started with 11 straight points. Sullinger started it with a three-pointer from the right wing. Stockman then hit a three to beat the PSU zone. Sullinger then engineered his steal and breakaway slam. Sullinger then hit a three from the left corner to tie the game at 52-52 with 6:30 left.
PSU's Claxton then made a pair of free throws with 5:35 left, but OSU reeled off seven more points on a tip-in by seldom used center Matt Marinchick, a Stockman trey on the break (after he had stolen the ball on the defensive end) and a Stockman driving jumper in the lane to go up 59-54 with 4:17 left.
OSU opened the door as Sullinger and Stockman each missed a pair of free throws. Parker tied the game for the last time at 59-59 with two free throws with 2:54 left.
But Stockman had the answer. He curled through the lane and drilled a trey from the top to put OSU up for good at 62-59 with 2:38 left.
Then, after a Penn State three-second violation, Dials made a pair of free throws. PSU's Ben Luber made a pair of free throws and, after Dials went 1 for 2 at the line, Parker cut the lead to 65-63 with a pair of free throws with 1:22 left.
But OSU got over the hump as Stockman fed Ivan Harris perfectly for a foul line jumper that gave the Buckeyes a 67-63 lead with 1:03 left.
"Ivan was talking to me and said he was hot, but he wasn't getting any shots," Stockman said. "He was wide open and I gave him his chance and he knocked it down."
In typical Penn State fashion, Parker was whistled for a traveling violation just before he swished a jumper.
Foster made a pair of free throws and Butler was 3 of 4 at the line in the final 26.3 seconds as Buckeyes iced the game.
Harris added five points for OSU, while Butler had four. Sylvester and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham each had three points.
* OSU defeated an opponent for the third time in one year for the second time in school history. It also happened in 2001-02, when the Buckeyes swept Michigan and beat the Wolverines in the Big Ten tournament.
* The Buckeyes improved to 8-6 all-time in the Big Ten tournament, including 2-2 in opening round games.
* The win guarantees that Matta will have the best debut season as an OSU coach. Gary Williams had the mark at 20-13 in 1986-87.
* OSU improved to 18-13 all-time against Penn State.
* The Buckeyes lost two games to Wisconsin during the regular season, falling 72-66 in Madison and 64-56 11 days ago in Columbus.
Stockman, one of OSU's three seniors, proved he is not ready to end the ride just yet.
"We talked that we wanted to get 20 wins," he said. "But we don't want to stop there. We're going to come ready tomorrow and play our hardest."