As Ohio State and Michigan battled for the nation's top prep football player one day before National Signing Day, their men's basketball teams met for a Big Ten showdown in OSU's Value City Arena. And while Pryor was set to pick a school Wednesday, it was the Buckeyes that picked apart their opponent to the tune of a 65-55 victory.
Much like the recruitment of Pryor, it did not come easily nor without drama. The lead changed hands nine teams, and both teams found themselves tied eight more times.
With 7:59 remaining in the game, OSU head coach Thad Matta went with four of his starters and had replaced his fifth, freshman guard Evan Turner, with classmate Jon Diebler. At the time, Michigan led, 52-50 and the Wolverines appeared to have the upper hand.
But from there, Matta would not make another substitution – and he would not need to. With senior forward Othello Hunter putting in second-chance points, Diebler connecting from all over the court and senior guard Jamar Butler distributing the ball, the Buckeyes (16-7, 7-3 Big Ten) came up with enough big plays down the stretch to turn a nail-biter into a blowout.
After the Buckeyes grabbed a one-point lead with 17:51 left in the game, the Wolverines (5-17, 1-9) countered with back-to-back treys to push their lead back to five points. An angry Matta called a timeout with 16:34 remaining, and it was in that huddle that he got his team's attention.
"It was more of, ‘It's time to play. It's time to make the plays. It's time to make extraordinary plays. Loose balls, we have to come up with them. Long rebounds, we have to get them. Enough's enough, we've got to play now,' Matta said of his message.
Apparently that message sunk in for his players.
"After Coach Matta had that little talk during timeout he sat us down and he was yelling at us, we saw in his eyes that he meant business," Hunter said. "I just thought, ‘Whatever it takes for my team to win …' That's what I did."
They fought back and tied the score twice – on a trey from Diebler with 15:29 remaining and a pull-up, contested jumper by him with 7:09 to go – and finally took the lead on two foul shots by – who else? – Diebler with 6:33 to go.
The two free throws by Diebler gave OSU a 54-52 lead, and they would finish the game on an 11-2 run.
"They really made a presence of going inside and Diebler hitting a huge three there, where he'd had a hard time making some shots helped them," Michigan head coach John Beilein said. "They're pretty good at combining a good post-up (game). Staying in front of Butler is really hard. He's just good."
All five Buckeyes who played the majority of the game together finished in double figures. Hunter led the way with 15 points and also added a game-high 12 rebounds, while Diebler finished with 14 points on 3 of 6 shooting and a perfect 6 for 6 night from the charity stripe. Koufos and sophomore swingman David Lighty added 12 each, while Butler had 10 points and nine assists.
Lighty said he could feel the confidence growing between his teammates as the game progressed.
"I think it's pretty much everything," Lighty said of how he could feel his team's confidence growing. "The crowd gets into it. That gets us pumped. It's new energy and new life. Our legs get lighter. We can run faster and jump higher.
In the second half, Matta made just three substitutions. He inserted Diebler for Turner with 16:34 remaining, and he gave Koufos a break by putting senior forward Matt Terwilliger into the game with 12:34 left.
Other than that, it was Butler, Diebler, Hunter, Lighty and Koufos for the rest of the way.
Although the personnel were different in the second half, the Buckeyes also changed their offensive philosophy. Matta said he emphasized having his players be more specific on offense, meaning he was calling more plays and leaving less up to chance on the court.
It was just a coincidence, he said, that the Buckeyes also started to look inside more during the second half than in the first. Ten of OSU's 27 first-half shots were three pointers, while just six of their 24 in the second half were from deep.
Hunter was the primary benefactor of that, as his five second-half offensive rebounds showed.
"He was a man inside," Diebler said of Hunter. "The way we played together in the second half, I think that's what makes us a good team because we have such talented players on the team. When we're all clicking on the same page, we're pretty hard to defend."
Diebler had started the first seven games of the season before giving way to Turner. Against the Wolverines, Turner did not take a shot from the field and had four turnovers in 14 minutes of action.
One game after Butler ripped into his teammates for not being mentally prepared enough to play in the team's loss to Iowa on Feb. 2, he likely was not pleased with his team's effort this time in the first half. The Buckeyes looked sluggish on offense early and headed to the locker room trailing by one point, 32-31.
Had OSU not been 5 of 10 from beyond the arc, it would have been a lot worse.
Michigan was led by guard Kelvin Grady's 11 points on 4 of 7 shooting. OSU outrebounded the Wolverines by a 34-24 margin and shot 47.1 percent from the floor compared to 40.0 percent for Michigan.