For 39 minutes Saturday, Ohio State couldn't buy a 3-pointer. With 12 seconds left and Ohio State down 66-65, the Buckeyes stole one.
It was just the fourteenth attempted 3-pointer by the Buckeyes, and just the fourth made outside jumper in a game the Buckeyes flexed their muscles in the paint with 7-1 freshman center Greg Oden. Oden scored 24 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, dished out four assists and blocked three shots in hitting on 9-of-13 from the field against the Volunteers, who didn't have an answer for the 7-footer with their biggest post player standing just 6-7.
It was clear from the outset that Ohio State intended to involve Oden in the gameplan. The freshman scored 10 of the Buckeyes' first 12 points en route to 16 points and 10 rebounds in the first half. Ohio State didn't hit their first 3-pointer, however, until Mike Conley propelled a 6-0 run on back-to-back 3-pointers to close out the first half - giving Ohio State a 36-33 halftime lead.
Although Ohio State allowed just 7-of-31 shooting from behind the arc for Tennesee, the Vols' full-court pressure caused 20 Ohio State turnovers. A double-digit second-half lead for Ohio State evaporated on a Chris Lofton lay-up with 45 seconds left, giving Tennessee a 66-65 lead.
However, when Tennessee had a chance to extend the lead to three with a one-and-one with 27 seconds left, Ramar Smith missed the first but the ball bounced off the foot of OSU forward Ivan Harris. Lofton had a second chance just four seconds later at a one-and-one attempt, but he missed the first and Oden grabbed the rebound. Ohio State ran the ball down the floor and got set in their offense. That's when Lewis took the ball at the top of the key and pulled up with the game-winning shot and Tennessee missed an open look from about 10 feet away on the other end, giving Ohio State a wild victory celebration.
Free throws were the achilles heel for Tennesse. While the Volunteers made just 5-of-11 attempts, Ohio State made 18-of-20 from the charity stripe. Lofton bested his season average of 22.6 points a game with a team-high 23 points on 10-of-20 from the field. He was 3-of-11 from 3-point range.
Conley also came up big for Ohio State. The 6-1 freshman point guard, Oden's high school teammate, was 4-of-6 from the field and 6-of-7 from the line on his way to 16 points and four assists. He did have a season-high five turnovers.
Smith added 14 points for the Volunteers while Bradshaw had 11 points.
* In a good news - bad news situation for Ohio State, the Buckeyes made just 4-of-14 3-pointers on Saturday against Tennessee. That's the bad news. But that's also the good news - Ohio State attempted just 14 shots of 53 field goal attempts. It was clear that Ohio State wanted more structure in their offense.
* The Buckeyes had their first real exposure this season to the full-court press. They failed miserably. Ohio State committed 20 turnovers and the Buckeyes had virtually no answer to the press until Matta put Greg Oden at the foul line and began lobbing the ball into the big man.
* It's the Ohio State seniors, Lewis and Ivan Harris, that appear to be struggling to adapt to what Matta is trying to do with his offensive flow. Both Harris and Lewis continue to take questionable shots, pass up open entry looks to Oden in the post and are taking quick shots outside the flow of the offense. Another knock on Lewis beyond his passing (or lack thereof) is that he does not penetrate very often unless he can get all the way to the rim - this is also a weakness of Jamar Butler.
* Ohio State allowed Tennessee a handful of open looks from 3-point range in the first half. Much of this was given because Ohio State was only extending their defense to the 3-point line and not beyond. Credit the Volunteers for knocking down several 25-footers. The Buckeyes did, however, limit Tennessee to 3-of-16 shooting from outside the arc in the second half.
* Tennessee did a terrific job in the second half of putting the ball on the deck and beating Ohio State with dribble penetration. In addition to the press, Tennessee cut into Ohio State's 10-point lead with creating some turnovers in the half-court set and also executing off the dribble. Tennessee also picked up some key weakside rebounds late in the game giving them some second-chance points.
* Oden was vulnerable in the second half, as he has been multiple times this season, to holding the ball on the baseline against man defense. A few times in the second half, this allowed Tennessee to sneak a second man under the basket and strip Oden of the ball. Often this is because he's taking too long to decide what he wants to do with the ball - i.e., pass or which move in his arsenal to execute.
* Ohio State continues to struggle against teams able to stretch the Buckeyes' defense to where Oden is guarding on the perimeter.
* Although the stats will not show it (zero assists and four turnovers), Butler did an excellent job of getting Ohio State into their half-court sets. While he struggled against full-court pressure, Butler was making some terrific passes and made good decisions with the basketball in the halfcourt.
* Ohio State started the first and second halves with plenty of intensity and good execution. Likewise, Ohio State closed out the first half well, and when the game was on the line at the end, Ohio State made the big shot.
* Matta stressed to Conley this week in practice that he needed to have the confidence to shoot the ball, given he's been making his 3-pointers with consistency in practice. The ultimatum was answered by Conley with two big threes to end the first half.
* Oden played the best game of his young career by far. He had at least five inches on everyone else on the floor and Tennessee's decision not to collapse their defense on him very often was surprising. Oden simply got such good position inside, he was able to finish with mostly dunks. Oden also did a nice job passing out of the double-team (four assists and several more crisp passes).
* Credit the Buckeye foul shooting (18-of-20) for not leaving any points at the line. This was a critical factor.
* Othello Hunter was again extremely active inside, especially in the first half. He is showing much more confidence.
* Ohio State showed more patience on Saturday, and willingness to stick to a gameplan. Overlooked in the sluggish second half was the fact the Buckeyes only took 25 percent of their shots from outside and at times, showed much better ball movement and there was less standing around on the perimeter.
Overall, there was a lot to be encouraged about, despite the fact Ohio State nearly blew a large second-half lead. Tennessee stayed in the game with full-court pressure, but Ohio State beat them in most every other aspect including inside, on the boards (a 17-rebound advantage) and on the free throw line.
Although there are plenty more landmines on Ohio State's schedule this season, there arguably will be only one more team as good as Tennessee that Ohio State faces in the Big Ten (Wisconsin). Also consider that while Ohio State was struggling with a top-20 team, UCLA needed a shot with six seconds to beat USC, Kansas needed overtime to beat Iowa State and Wisconsin struggled against Northwestern.
There is plenty for Ohio State to improve on, but when you're playing ranked opponents especially, the name of the game is still getting the win. Ohio State did that.
The Buckeyes won three of four games in a stretch that included Indiana, at Illlinois, at Wisconsin and Tennessee. Looking at the big picture, you have to like that.