It seems like only a week ago that Ohio State's NCAA Tournament at-large hopes were deader than a doornail. It seems like only a week ago the Buckeyes had a more dysfunctional family than the Spears clan, Lohan group or Kardashians.
And it feels like just a week ago, Ohio State was en route to completing one of the most underachieving seasons in Buckeye men's basketball history.
Did it seem like only a week ago? It was.
After returning home from the Twin Cities with a 71-57 loss to Minnesota in "The Barn," senior point guard Jamar Butler looked doomed to finish a fantastic legacy in disappointing fashion. The career assists and 3-point field goal leader at Ohio State had grown grumpy, ineffective and hostile.
Returning home, and calling a team meeting six days ago along with fellow senior, and close confidant Matt Terwilliger, Ohio State regrouped, spoiling Big Ten co-leader Purdue's dreams of a championship. And with their backs against the proverbial at-large wall, the senior magician had something else up his sleeve: beating Michigan State.
Behind 20 points from Butler, Ohio State (19-12, 10-8 Big Ten) had something in store few cable television reality series provide: a happy ending. After a 63-54 victory Sunday afternoon, the Buckeyes have suddenly found a sense of confidence, pride and trust in one another.
It looked like a game Ohio State desperately needed. It seemed to be a game the Spartans, notoriously poor on the road, felt cozy knowing their seed and placement in the Big Ten Tournament beginning, for them, Friday in Indianapolis. And most importantly, it seemed, despite a 12-point second half deficit, the Buckeyes weren't going to settle for failure.
Down 35-23 with 18:20 left in the game, thanks to four quick points by Michigan State to begin the second half, the euphoria from Tuesday's feel-good upset of the Boilermakers was fading fast. But from the 11:42 mark on, where Michigan St. held a 45-35 lead, the Buckeyes revived their tournament chances, previously on life support, and rebounded for a 28-9 run to end the game.
It was the type of turnaround that can turn a team's fate from disappointment and turbulence to joy and memories.
And the difference was stifling, championship-caliber defense.
Forcing 21 Spartan turnovers, and three second-half shot-clock violations, the Buckeyes allowed Michigan St. just 11-of-27 from the field in the last 20 minutes. The gaudy numbers, which included a goose-egg for senior guard Drew Neitzel in that timeframe, allowed Ohio State to overcome a 33-20 rebounding advantage for the Big Ten-leading Spartans on the glass.
"It was completely different out there the last 10 minutes," said Ohio State head coach Thad Matta in his postgame press conference. "(The players) played harder and smarter."
Not to mention, for the second-consecutive game, they played together as a team.
The resurgence, which coincides with Thad Matta's No. 100 victory as the Buckeye head coach, is due to a team working together collectively, taking better shots, playing tougher defense and believing in each other when things aren't going their way. Just a week ago, it was a collection of individuals pointing fingers and waiting for the next thing to possibly go wrong.
And for Butler, it was the most deserving finish. After a few trying weeks, where Butler let frustration settle in, he learned good things come to those who wait – even if the wait almost went too long.
"It was great to get a win even though it was this late in the season, but we'll take it," he added after the game. "We played two teams ranked in the top-25, they came in here and we knocked both of them off."
When Michigan State Had the Ball
*It was a tale of two halves for the Spartans on offense – though it's a tale they'd rather not have been told. In the first half, Michigan State was afforded wide-open looks from 3-point range, and if it wasn't given to them, they earned it with penetration, solid screening for their shooters and knocking down open jump-shots from the elbow.
*Perhaps the last-second slicing lay-up by Michigan State guard Kalin Lucas to extend the halftime lead to 31-23 was a blessing in disguise for Ohio State. Sending the Buckeyes into the locker room down eight, it was the perfect example for how atrocious the Ohio State defense had been. And what was Ohio State's answer?
*In the immortal words of musician Billy Joel, "Pressure." Ohio State exposed the Spartan ball-handling with constant pressure in the second half in the form of a 2-1-2 three-quarters court press as well as a sideline trap whenever the Spartan forwards received a pass in the corner. The result, 21 turnovers, spoke for itself.
*Michigan State forward Raymar Morgan picking up an early third foul in the second half paid huge dividends for the Buckeyes. Though Morgan finished the game with a team-high 19 points, his absence for some of the key stretches took away one of two Spartans that were exploiting the middle of the floor and the Buckeye zone. While Ohio State was playing tenacious perimeter defense, switching from a 2-3 to a tighter match-up, Morgan was not around as much to find comfort in the middle. And when he was, the lack of possessions ending in a quality shot gave him fewer opportunities.
*Credit the Spartan rebounding effort (12 offensive rebounds) for keeping them in the lead much of the game. However, down the stretch, especially the last four minutes, Ohio State did a terrific job limiting them to just one shot per trip.
*Though playing on a neutral court Friday with time to correct many of the mistakes shown to his team today, Tom Izzo has to be concerned with the precedent set. It's highly unlikely the Buckeyes will force another 20 turnovers, and probably not even 13-15, but after 30 games, you wonder if Michigan State can magically hide this gaping vulnerability.
When Ohio State Had the Ball
*It was a role-reversal for Ohio State from the first half to the second. In the first 20 minutes, it was Michigan State playing the in-your-face defense and getting the open looks. But down the stretch, thanks in part to some run-out opportunities created from defensive pressure, the Buckeyes shook loose for a couple of critical 3-pointers, timely driving lay-ups and just enough of those "extra" passes. And despite missing several free throws midway through the second half, Ohio State stepped up and iced the game at the charity stripe down the stretch.
*The inspired play by David Lighty on the defensive end (authoritative rebounds and a noteworthy block of a Neitzel lay-up) triggered a terrific offensive performance. Though he scored just 12 points, Lighty was 5-of-5 from the field, including a huge 3-pointer down the stretch. It was arguably one of the finest performances of his young career.
*So much for Butler suffering from fatigue, apparently. The 6-1 senior finished his last two home games in style: 47 points, 11-of-19 from the field with four assists. That includes seven 3-pointers and a combined 16-of-16 from the free throw line.
*Not to be outdone, fellow senior Othello Hunter had 13 points including four offensive rebounds. The biggest play, however, was with just over 30 seconds left up three when Hunter soared in to throw down a left-handed dunk of a Kosta Koufos missed attempt that bounced high in the air off the rim. It gave the Buckeyes a 5-point lead and finalized the fate of the Spartans.
*Though it wasn't a terribly crisp game offensively by Ohio State, the Buckeyes found a good balance of penetration, 3-pointers, free throws and low-post entry passing to Koufos. The key point is that the Buckeyes did not start hoisting contested threes or fade-away twos. Instead, Ohio State was patient and capitalized off strong defense.