Ohio State Volunteering Survival

After an unlikely comeback from eight points down with less then three minutes left in the second round against Xavier, Ohio State is enjoying their new lease on life. Tonight, the Buckeyes make a return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999 - which has since been forfeited in the wake of NCAA sanctions. Here's a preview on tonight's rematch of Ohio State against Tennessee.

Whether by skill, fate or luck, Ohio State is just glad to be alive. Tonight at 9:57 pm eastern, the survival continues.

For the first time since an impromptu Final Four run in 1999, which has now been erased from the books as if it never happened, Ohio State will compete in the second weekend of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

Ohio State (32-3) meets Tennessee (24-10) in the South Region Semifinal this evening in San Antonio. It's a rematch of an earlier 68-66 Buckeye victory in Columbus back in January.

The 1999 March trip to St. Petersburg was forfeited for use of an ineligible player (Boban Savovic.) Technically speaking, the Buckeyes are still searching for their first Final Four appearance since 1968.

It was Ohio State's near miraculous effort in the last three minutes of Saturday's 78-71 overtime win against in-state Xavier that advanced them to the Sweet 16.

"I don't think we've played our complete game yet," said junior guard Jamar Butler during interviews this week in San Antonio. "We always talk about putting 40 good minutes of basketball together. I don't think we've done that yet."

Down 59-51 with 2:54 left in the game against Xavier, Ohio State needed just three minutes, let alone 40, to avoid a season-ending defeat.

It was a three-pointer by Ron Lewis with two seconds left in regulation that tied the game after Justin Cage missed the second of two free throws. Lewis finished with a team-high 27 points.

Seeing Ohio State slip past his team in January, and narrowly escaping a second round defeat at the hands of an in-state foe this past weekend, Volunteer head coach Bruce Pearl is convinced the best could be yet to come for Ohio State.

"In the beginning we gave them the confidence to go on this 19-game winning streak but it's because (Ohio State head coach) Thad (Matta) knows exactly what they're capable of," Pearl said. "He knows what they're capable of. They've had (close games) but they found a way to win, which is beautiful."

Since the Buckeyes' victory on Jan. 13, Ohio State has not lost another game.

Despite Pearl's belief Ohio State is capable of taking its game to another level, Matta has been satisfied with the results thus far.

"I know we've had moments where we've played really, really good basketball," he said, responding to Pearl's comments. "I think that the thing I love about this team is that we've shown is that we can play a lot of different ways from a Tennessee game, to a Northwestern, to a Michigan State running a lot of set plays. So I think that I hope he's right and tomorrow night is a big break out game for us."

Led by junior SEC Player of the Year Chris Lofton (20.7 PPG) and guard JaJuan Smith (15.3 PPG), the Volunteers run an up-tempo offense that relies on a fullcourt press, a roster full of athletes and deadly outside shooting. Tennessee averages 80.8 points per game this season.

Behind a breakout 24 points and 15 rebounds from 7-1 center Greg Oden in the first meeting, the Buckeyes escaped holding Tennessee to 38.6 percent shooting, including 7-of-31 from three-point range.

Pearl says the edge goes to the Buckeyes, on paper, the second time around.

"I wish we didn't play them in Columbus if we're playing them right now," he added because of forcing so many turnovers the first meeting. "We played our cards. We showed our hand."

Tennessee forced 20 turnovers against the Buckeyes in January. With the Volunteers turning it over just eight times, Tennessee compensated for being outrebounded 46-30 and giving up an 18-5 disadvantage from the free throw line.

Ohio State appears to have more confidence than it did against Tennessee the first time - a byproduct possibly of Lewis' late-game heroics Saturday.

"I think we have gelled closer," added Lewis, "have become more of a team then we were back then."

The senior has been more than an unsung hero.

Lewis is averaging 12.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game for the Buckeyes. Over the last five games, including the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, Lewis has scored 17.2 per game and shot over 50 percent from the field.

His improbable game-tying three from more than 25-feet sent the Buckeyes into overtime, where freshman point guard Mike Conley cleaned up despite Oden having fouled out toward the end of regulation.

Oden has been the talk of the national media this week for his fifth foul - an apparent shove that could have been whistled for an intentional with 9 seconds remaining. The intentional foul, had it been called, would have essentially eliminated much hope of an Ohio State comeback.

It was the first time all season Oden had fouled out.

"He's been great in practice this week," Matta said of Oden's psyche. "He was great on the ride home. I expect him to play very good basketball (tomorrow night.)"

The winner Thursday will play the winner of Memphis and Texas A&M Saturday for the right to go to the Final Four. The Volunteers are looking for their first ever Final Four trip in 15 tries.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes are looking to get back for the first time since 1968 - at least officially.

Right now, Ohio State just feels lucky to be alive.

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