A Breath Of Fresh Air

For much of the 2007-08 season, Ohio State postgame press conferences have seemed as much like a hostage situation as a chance to further analyze what had just transpired on the court. Following the team's big victory on senior day against the Michigan State Spartans, it was a much more relaxed team that greeted reporters.

There was an air of ease permeating the postgame podium that has not been seen much, if at all, this season.

Ohio State had just done what was viewed as impossible task less than six days prior: It had knocked off two teams ranked in the top 20 in as many games. Suddenly, a season that was seemingly on a collision course with the NIT Tournament had received a second chance.

Situated at the podium were the team's three seniors – Jamar Butler, Othello Hunter and Matt Terwilliger – alongside sophomore David Lighty. All four of the co-captains sat there obviously pleased with their 63-54 victory against longtime nemesis Michigan State, answers to questions often intermixed with laughter.

One reporter asked what the key was to a second-half defensive effort that saw the Buckeyes outscore the Spartans by a 15-2 margin during the final 5:25 of the contest. The answers came in rapid-fire succession.

"Playing hard," Terwilliger said.

"Pressuring," Butler said.

"Checking somebody," Lighty said.

For one press conference, at least, it seemed as if last season's Buckeyes had resurfaced. A team that has been frustrated for nearly the entire 2007-08 season appears to have suddenly found its stride right at the last possible moment.

The question was, where has this been all year?

"That's a good question," Butler said. "I don't know. I know it's late in the season, but for us to start playing like this now, we'll take it. We know we need a few more key wins and hopefully we can get in the tournament."

Butler's statement gives a good indication as to where the Buckeyes stand. Entering the week, they absolutely had to come away with wins against No. 15 Purdue and No. 17 MSU to even have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament.

Mission accomplished, but that might not be enough for the Buckeyes to make the tournament. At least one more win would likely punch OSU's ticket to the Big Dance, but one more win will have to come against the same Spartans the Buckeyes defeated on senior day.

But while there seem to be many things working to their advantage as of the last week, the fact that the Buckeyes have a newfound sense of confidence might be the biggest advantage of all. For weeks, head coach Thad Matta spoke of how his players had frequently been on the cusp of pulling off big wins but came away unable to win. One of the problems was the fact that his team simply had not won a close game and did not know how to succeed in such circumstances.

Ohio State figured it out against the Boilermakers, coming up with clutch play after clutch play in the overtime victory. Purdue head coach Matt Painter attributed his team's loss to the fact that the Buckeyes were simply able to drive the ball against his charges.

But the confidence OSU gained in the win was evident five days later when MSU came to town. Despite trailing by as many as 12 points early in the second half, the Buckeyes again succeeded in a pressure situation similar to ones that had made them wilt just a full week prior.

"I know I had a little bit more confidence as a coach that our players had experienced something like that, a nip-and-tuck type of game that goes into overtime," Matta said. "Hopefully our guys were able to draw upon that (against MSU) when we were down as big as we were. We got a little momentum going and you hope that they can recollect or draw back from, ‘hey, we've been in this situation, we were just in it, we can get this done.' "

The result is a modest two-game winning streak to end the regular season that came on the heels of a four-game losing streak and a stretch where OSU lost six of eight games. Whether or not the Buckeyes have turned the ship around will be tested Friday afternoon when they face MSU for the second time in less than a week.

At the very least, they appear to have achieved a goal Matta has for each one of his teams.

"I think for all teams across the country that's the obvious goal: we want to be playing great basketball down the stretch leading into the conference tournament," he said. "It's something that I've always strived for and knowing that we want to be playing our best basketball in late February and March." Again, mission accomplished. Now let's see how far it takes them.

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