Anatomy of a Comeback - OSU/UT Analysis

It was a memorable comeback for Ohio State. Down 20 points just before halftime in San Antonio to Tennessee, the Buckeyes rallied for a thrilling 85-84 victory, sending them to the Elite Eight Saturday against Memphis. With a Final Four bid now on the line, Kyle Lamb takes you through the comeback and analyzes how and why it happened.

It was almost as if Ohio State was an identity theft victim Thursday evening. Someone stole a credit card and ran up an enormous amount of seemingly irrevocable debt.


Before Tennessee could punch a ticket to the Elite Eight, the Buckeyes discovered their real personality.


As has often been the case, Ohio State's Dr. Jekkyl and Mr. Hyde routine created a bit more suspense and late drama than perhaps head coach Thad Matta wanted. But in the end, Matta's schizophrenic Buckeyes advanced one step short of the Final Four by way of an 85-84 victory.


The tale of two halves, including a 49-32 throbbing by Tennessee in the first half and 53-35 blitz by the Buckeyes in the second half was paramount to watching two very different games.


Allow me to give a summation of all the things that went right (and went wrong) in the Buckeyes' memorable San Antonio victory.


Here's a blow-by-blow account and my thoughts of some of the critical moments in the thrilling Sweet 16 stunner.




* 20:00 left – Tennessee wins the tip.  A quick pass from Dane Bradshaw to an open JaJuan Smith gives the Volunteers a quick three-pointer. It was an inauspicious beginning for Ohio State.


* Ivan Harris, Josh Tabb, Ron Lewis and Smith trade three-point baskets. After buckets by Greg Oden and Lewis, giving Ohio State a 10-9 lead, Chris Lofton counters with another trey – giving Tennessee a 12-10 advantage. I thought Ohio State's defense was not extending very well, and that was a key in the Vols getting hot from outside.


* 15:20 – Ohio State makes a mass (planned) substitution. David Lighty, Matt Terwilliger, Daequan Cook and Othello Hunter replaced Oden, Lewis, Mike Conley and Ivan Harris. Oden already had one foul and Ohio State wanted to keep the starters fresh.


This would wind up a costly stretch, however.


* After those substitutions, Tennessee went on a 13-4 run. Oden picked up his second foul with 10:48 by hooking his defender on a baseline spin move. This coming just one possession after Conley picked up a key second foul. Playing without Oden and Conley, Ohio State fell behind 39-20.


This was a key stretch on a number of fronts. First and foremost, Ohio State didn't get any second chances on the offensive glass without Oden's rebounding. Secondly, Tennessee began employing a fullcourt pressure, something they had not done as much as expected, taking advantage of Ohio State's lack of ball handling in the game as Conley was on the bench during most of this stretch. Lastly, with Hunter, Terwilliger, Lewis, Cook and Butler in the game, Ohio State did not have its best defensive lineup on the floor.

It was back at the 8:18 spot of the first half that Matta elected to bring Lighty in for Cook. Cook had given up a three-pointer and then two consecutive backdoor layups, prompting the move for defensive purposes.


* Matta attempted to bring Oden back in the game at 6:19, sensing desperation with his team down 34-18, but within a minute, he picked up his third foul and had to return to the bench. It was do-or-die time for the rest of Ohio State.


* Tennessee worked the lead up to 49-29. It was a shock to almost everyone watching. However, despite the noteworthy deficit, I felt there was still some margin for improvement.


"I don't think this game is quite over with," I told a friend of mine at half. "The key will be for Ohio State to cut the game down by 5-7 points in the first five minutes of the second half."


That lead, which was 49-32 at half, was only worked down thanks to Lighty, the freshman who has been struggling on offense for most of the year. As the first half buzzer sounded, Lighty worked his way into the lane and made a shot and got fouled. He converted the three-point play, giving Ohio State some semblance of momentum at halftime – a huge leap for Ohio State under the circumstance if only a small step for most teams.


"David's play at the end of the half was a little bit of a momentum boost for us," said Matta in his postgame news conference. "Boy, we were really jacked up going into halftime."


* The first half was the worst scenario possible for Ohio State. Down 17 points, Oden had three fouls, Conley two fouls, Ohio State gave up nine three-pointers, the Buckeyes turned the ball over four more times than Tennessee and shot just 3-of-10 from behind the arc.


I thought Ohio State looked shell shocked for most of the first half. I wouldn't say they lacked emotion, but they did.


For those questioning Oden and Conley's intensity, among the rest of the Ohio State team, there's something you should know. This has been how Cook, Conley and Oden have played for the last three years in the Spiece AAU program when they lost less than eight games together over three years. They simply don't show a lot of emotion but this calm, cool, collected composure is why they're able to make plays in clutch situations.




* Ohio State and Tennessee traded baskets to start the half. Lewis scored for Ohio State on a driving layup – a great sign to begin the half. From there, Ohio State went on a 10-0 run on four free throws by Conley, a free throw by Oden, layup by Lewis and three-pointer by Harris. It was clear that Ohio State was attacking.


* Tennessee stretched the lead back to nine, 57-48 with a pair of three-pointers. However, Lewis, playing like a man inspired, countered with a three of his own. After a couple of quick-trigger threes showing a sense of urgency by Tennessee, Lewis again took the ball to the rim and cut the lead to 57-53.

* With 10:53 left, Oden picked up a critical fourth foul. By this time Ohio State had made a sudden charge, but it was unclear if the Buckeyes could sustain momentum without him on the floor. My concern was that the Volunteers might try to attack the rim without Oden's presence instead of settling for quick threes. This proved to be a mistake on Tennessee's part.


* Ohio State tied the game 64 apiece with 9:32. Conley and Lewis continued to take the game over by dribble penetration. I kind of thought at this point that Tennessee might try a zone defense to stop dribble-drive. However, my hunch is that Bruce Pearl either didn't think it would continue or he feared the three-point shot.


On the other end, there were a lot of people that wondered why Ohio State had not zoned up in the first half and again in the second half to protect fouls. This was not even an option, nor should it have been. Ohio State was finally in the grove facing up Lofton and Smith from the outside and not allowing open three-pointers. Going to a zone defense against a team hitting 50 percent of their outside looks against man would have been a disaster. At that point, Matta (correctly) surmised he could steal some minutes as the game wore on and then get all his starters back out down the stretch, playing tough man.


Mission accomplished.


* With key minutes from Terwilliger, who had some key rebounds, dunks and solid defensive efforts, Ohio State and Tennessee battled back and forth for the next four minutes, indicating the makings of a terrific finish.


The 3:37 media timeout was a 79-76 Volunteer lead and a pivotal moment as Oden re-entered the game for the first time in eight minutes. Following the timeout, Lighty again hit a critical shot – a three out of the corner, which tied the game.


Lighty was the unsung hero Thursday night. In addition to these two clutch shots, he provided the energy that had been missing all night. He was an inspirational leader both with emotion and defensively.


* Lewis and Lofton traded threes once again, playing a classic game of "anything you can do, I can do better." Lewis wound up scoring 25 points while Lofton added 24. Ohio State took a 2-point lead with 1:38 on a pair of Oden free throws, then the Volunteers tied it on two separate trips to the line, making one of two each time. This was because Tennessee was beginning to take the ball inside – the one thing I thought could do Ohio State in late in the game.


* When it was all said and done, however, Conley had the ball in his hands with six seconds left and got to the rim. He got fouled and made the game-winning free throw. I was surprised Matta didn't call a timeout before this possession, but the thinking was that if they spread the floor, Conley could get a layup or drive-and-dish opportunity for an open shot. The plan worked to perfection.




* It's all about surviving and advancing. I don't know why we even need to say this anymore. People should know it by now. Ohio State has proven all season long it can make big shots when it matters and it has a mentality that quite honestly, I've not seen from any other team in the country besides Florida. Only the Gators have that killer instinct where they feel when the game is on the line they will close it out.


* On to Memphis Saturday. It's win-and-you're-going-to-Atlanta. For a first-year laden team, making a Final Four appearance would have been great for expectations by most fans at the beginning of the season. But the mentality and toughness shown the last two games, I think Ohio State should go to Atlanta with the thoughts of winning – should they get past a very athletic Memphis club.

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