Conley Shines as Bucks Win

COLUMBUS, Ohio - In what was likely Greg Oden's final home game at Ohio State, it wasn't the 7-footer who shined - but instead his best friend who stands a foot smaller.

Mike Conley Jr., the kid who has taken a back seat to his teammate in both high school and AAU for what seems like an eternity, hit the most critical shot that has been taken in the Thad Matta Era.

The Buckeyes had three shots at elite-level teams coming into Sunday's Big Ten and they came up short in all three. They put up a valiant fight, minus Oden, in Chapel Hill against North Carolina. Then came the blowout to the defending national champion Florida Gators on the road. Lastly, it was a loss in Madison to <i>these</i> same Badgers.

When a question was posed as to what Sunday's win against Wisconsin would do for the psyche of the team, his three teammates on the podium all deferred to Conley - just as they did when the ultra-poised floor leader had the ball in his hands as the clock ticked down and the Badgers led by a point.

Conley took it to the basket and hit a shot in the lane with 3.9 seconds left that proved to be the game-winner. It was the first game-winner that Conley could recall and also the first time he could remember getting more attention than his larger-than-life teammate.

``This is a statement game," Conley said. "We needed to beat a top five team."

The Buckeyes, who were the top-rated team in the Coaches' Poll, knocked off the nation's No. 1 club in the AP Poll. Ohio State has won 12 straight games and capped a perfect season at home.

Brian Butch wouldn't have mattered. That'll be an excuse that Badger fans try and use, but the enigmatic and skilled 6-foot-11 junior, who played just three minutes before leaving the game with a right elbow injury, had managed to reach double-figures just once in the last seven games. He didn't even score a single point in the teams' first meeting.

Alando Tucker looked mortal. In fact, he looked ordinary with Ron Lewis shadowing him (with a little help from Ivan Harris and David Lighty) for most of the game. He went 16 minutes and 43 seconds without a point in the second half.

Ohio State has now won back-to-back Big Ten crowns for the first time since winning three in a row from 1960-62.

It's naïve to think that Oden hasn't played a critical part in the team's success, but his childhood friend has been just as important.

The 11 points, four assists and two turnovers in 36 minutes don't even begin to tell the story of Conley's value to the team.

``From the first time I saw him play, he showed a tremendous poise and confidence about him," Matta said. "He just makes all the right decisions."

That's why Matta basically drew up the final play and told Conley to just go out and make something happen.

``I knew I was going to make the shot," Conley Jr. said. "I had that feeling. I went to the hole and it worked out for us."

The fans mobbed the court. They chanted "One More Year" in hopes that Oden will return for another go-around. Not a chance that'll happen as Oden will probably call Boston or Memphis home a year from now.

``I thought they were talking about Ivan (Harris)," Oden said as he barely cracked a smile. "Then Ron popped into my head."

``That's a decision I'll make later on in the year," he added with a serious tone.

This is The Year for the Buckeyes. They've already won an unlikely national championship on the gridiron and with teams such as Florida, North Carolina and UCLA showing they are far from invincible, this is Matta's best chance.

He's got Oden and Conley - two of the most poised and level-headed freshman that have come through college basketball in a long, long time.

``I think that's why they're such good friends," said Oden's mother, Zoe. "They are both quiet and low-key."

Finally, it was Conley's turn.

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