For the third straight game, the head coach's Ohio State team took the court against a feisty, tough opponent. For the third straight game, the Buckeyes found themselves trailing by a significant margin.
And for the third straight game, OSU found itself on the short end of a tough road contest. This time, it was the No. 6 Tennessee Volunteers who delivered the Buckeyes (12-1) a 74-69 defeat.
Unlike the previous three games, though, the Buckeyes had the ball in the final seconds with a chance to tie the game. The Vols (16-1) opened up a 71-62 lead in the final minutes, but the Buckeyes chipped away and took advantage of a few Tennessee miscues to pull within three points, 72-69, on a basket by senior forward Othello Hunter.
OSU then fouled sophomore forward Tyler Smith, who went to the free-throw line and missed the front end of a one-and-one situation, giving the Buckeyes the ball. The Tennessee defense stiffened and forced the Buckeyes to settle for a contested trey by freshman center Kosta Koufos and the Vols took possession.
From there, Tennessee attempted to inbound the ball and throw it the length of the court for an easy basket, but the pass was overthrown and went out of bounds at the opposite end of the floor. OSU regained possession with less than 30 seconds left and worked the ball around before finding freshman guard Jon Diebler open on the wing for a game-tying trey.
His attempt rimmed out, but the Buckeyes got the offensive rebound and found senior guard Jamar Butler at the top of the circle. He, in turn, found Diebler again, who misfired from deep for the second time on the possession. Tennessee would get the rebound and hit two free throws at the other end, helping to set the final score.
It was simply a case of the Buckeyes putting themselves in position to win but not making enough plays to pull out the victory.
"We lost to a great basketball team today," Matta told the Ohio State Basketball Radio Network. "I thought guys responded today and showed more toughness more tenacity. That's got to be the standard for how we play."
Hunter put up what was arguably his best game of the season. The senior forward was all over the court for the Buckeyes, putting up 17 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. He was aided by freshman guard Evan Turner, who had a career-high 21 points and 10 rebounds by finding ways to drive the basket.
Turner and the Buckeyes found an advantage at the free-throw line, where they were 17 for 22 as a team. Tennessee, in contrast, was 8 of 17.
Koufos' trey in the second half helped set a tone for the 7-0 freshman. After sitting out much of the first half, Koufos had all 13 of his points in the second half, helping the Buckeyes compete down the stretch. With Hunter and Turner leading the way, OSU outrebounded the Vols by a 41-39 margin.
At the half, Matta told him to simply keep his head up.
"I told him to slow down a little bit and let things come to him and just play harder and good things will happen," he said. "Othello's a great example today. He was out there getting after it. Kosta did a much getter job in the second half being physical around the basket."
Koufos' jumper was also OSU's first trey of the game. The Buckeyes were just 2 of 20 from beyond the arc, led by freshman Jon Diebler's 0-for-4 performance. The native of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, has missed his last 14 treys and is just 1 for his last 19.
Diebler was one of three reserves to see action for the Buckeyes, who saw all their scoring come from their five starters.
After twice whittling Tennessee's lead down to one point, the Buckeyes took their first lead of the game at the 18:07 mark of the second half when Koufos hit a three-pointer – the first of the game for OSU.
The Buckeyes opened up a 7-0 lead in the second half, 46-39, when a 14-3 OSU run was capped by a nifty reverse layup by Hunter. Tennessee would counter with a 10-3 run to knot the score. That run in itself was part of a 29-9 Tennessee run that allowed them to open up a 13-point lead late, setting the stage for the dramatic final moments.
Much like the last time the Buckeyes took the court, they found themselves trailing early by a large margin. A Chris Lofton trey made it 16-6 Vols, and the home team appeared to be very much in control.
But like OSU did against Michigan State on Tuesday, it responded. Using Hunter inside, the Buckeyes pulled to within four points at 18-14. Tennessee would score five straight points to push the margin back up to nine, but the Buckeyes would respond again.
The teams traded baskets to make it 25-16 Tennessee, but the Buckeyes put together a 10-2 run that saw them score six points at the charity stripe to pull within a point. Tennessee would turn the ball over on its next possession, giving the Buckeyes the ball and a chance to claim its first lead of the afternoon.
Instead, freshman guard Evan Turner turned the ball over at the other end of the court, leading to a fast-break basket by the Vols that made it a three-point game again.
"Sometimes you just wonder if it's meant to be," Matta said.