Back To The Big Apple

Playing an in-state foe fighting for both respect and a spot in the final four of the MasterCard NIT Tournament, Ohio State emerged on the plus side of an 11-point decision at Value City Arena on Wednesday night. Up next is a possible shot at an NIT championship.

For the second time in a year, the Buckeyes are headed to the Big Apple.

A big run to start the second half blew open what was a close game, and Ohio State defeated in-state foe Dayton by a 74-63 score to advance to the semifinals of the MasterCard NIT Tournament.

The win means the Buckeyes (22-13) will return to Madison Square Garden, site of this season's NIT Season Tip-Off. In that tournament, OSU defeated Syracuse before falling to Texas A&M in the championship game.

This time around, the Buckeyes are hoping to write a different ending.

"We started there, and we're going to end it there," senior forward Matt Terwilliger said. "I'm not ready for it to end. We still have two more games to win."

After trailing by a point at the break, the Buckeyes wasted little time blowing the game wide open in the second half. After Dayton (23-11) turned the ball over on the first possession of the second half, OSU freshman Evan Turner drove the basket and scored his first points of the game to put the Buckeyes on top, 32-31.

They would not trail again, opening up a lead that climbed as high as 18 points with 4:03 remaining.

"Our growth has been amazing this season," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "We have come a long way the last few months with our maturity. We're still not where I would like us to be, but the improvement has been great."

Turner followed up his drive with a mid-range jumper. When senior Jamar Butler connected on a trey a few moments later, it was a 49-37 OSU lead and a 19-8 run to open the half.

That run was buoyed by two treys by freshman guard Jon Diebler, who entered the game shooting just 28.6 percent from beyond the arc on the season. His two treys, along with a pair of free-throws by freshman Kosta Koufos and both Butler's trey and a layup from the co-captain marked a 13-2 run.

The Buckeyes shot 60.0 percent (15 of 25) from the floor in the second half while pulling away from the victory. Sophomore David Lighty credited a newfound second-half intensity to the team's success.

"They were compacting their defense inside the paint, but I think it was pretty much us," Lighty said. "We really weren't playing offense or defense like we should've the whole first half. Then I think we came out in the second half with a whole different mentality."

OSU eked out a three-point lead in the first half thanks to consecutive baskets by Koufos, making the score 18-15 with 8:20 remaining, but Dayton put together a significant run that put them back on top and gave the visiting crowd plenty to cheer about.

The Flyers went on a 16-8 run, giving them a five-point lead at 31-26 with 1:17 remaining in the half that was finally stemmed by a pair of converted free-throws by both Matt Terwilliger and P.J. Hill that set the halftime score at 31-30.

During the run, OSU knotted the score first at 24 and again at 26, but a trey by Brian Roberts and a pair of free-throws by Marcus Johnson pushed it back to a five-point lead.

It could have been a bigger Dayton lead after the Flyers got a second chance in the final minute to tack on a final basket. After Hill's free-throws, Dayton's Chris Wright was swatted by OSU forward Dallas Lauderdale, giving the Buckeyes the ball with 16 seconds remaining. The ball found its way into Butler's hands, but the senior lofted a pass along the sideline to a streaking Lighty, who did not see it until it was too late. Reaching up and grabbing the pass, he unsuccessfully tried to throw it off a Dayton defender.

The Flyers regained possession with 11.1 seconds remaining but were unable to get a shot off thanks to some stingy defense by the Buckeyes.

Matta was hamstrung by foul troubles to his two key big men in the first half. Hunter and Koufos were whistled for three and two fouls, respectively, in the first 20 minutes, paving the way for Lauderdale and Matt Terwilliger to see some extended playing time. In 11 minutes, Koufos led the way with nine first-half points.

Partially as a result, the visitors held a 20-12 edge on the glass in the first half and finished with a 37-26 advantage.

Undeterred by his early foul trouble, Koufos finished with a game-high 21 points on 9 of 11 shooting in 25 minutes of action.

Butler added 12 points, while Turner had 11 and Diebler finished with 10. Dayton was led by Roberts, who had 20 points on 8-of-20 shooting.

For the third consecutive game, Matta got to empty his bench late in the game. With 46.1 seconds remaining, OSU fielded a squad of Kyle Madsen, Eric Wallace, Danny Peters, Mark Titus and Dallas Lauderdale.

For Butler, Terwilliger and Hunter, it marked the final home game in their OSU careers. Each one received a celebratory hug from Matta when they got to the team bench.

"I'm just happy to go out with a win," Butler said. "Anytime you can play your last college game on your home floor and come out with a win, you're happy."

The game was played in front of a passionate sellout crowd of 19,049 that saw a fair amount of Dayton blue scattered through the scarlet and gray-clad OSU fans. Both school's pep bands were in attendance, adding to the intensity of the game.

Winners of five of their last six, the Buckeyes will face Mississippi at 9 p.m. on April 1. The winner of that will face the winner of Florida/Massachusetts on April 3 in a game televised on ESPN.

OSU and Florida faced each other in the national championship game last season, with Florida earning an 84-75 victory. This season marked the first time since 1980 that the two teams who advanced to the national championship game did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament the following season.

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