As it turned out, that was more a testament to the ineptitude of the first half put forth by the Runnin' Rebels and not the coaching prowess of Andy Kennedy.
Playing in the semifinal round of the MasterCard NIT Tournament at Madison Square Garden, freshman Evan Turner had 17 points, classmate Kosta Koufos added 16 more and senior Jamar Butler – playing in his second-to-last collegiate game – punched in 17 more as the Buckeyes handled an Ole Miss team had recorded the second-most wins in school history by an 81-69 score.
But it did not come easy, no matter what the first half might have intimated. Using an aggressive defensive approach that encouraged OSU to take quick shots, the Rebels clawed their way back into the game.
Despite facing a 24-point deficit at the half, No. 2 seed Ole Miss chipped away at the lead and six times threatened to cut the OSU lead down to single digits. Finally, with 2:26 remaining, a trey by Chris Warren – who finished with a game-high 19 points – made it 73-65 Buckeyes.
Ole Miss would cut it to seven points, but the Buckeyes would hold on for the win.
"Obviously it was a tale of two halves," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "We were fortunate to get up as big as we were at halftime because we were not very good in the second half. We lost a lot of intensity of what we were doing and probably played the score more than we played Ole Miss."
To the last man, the Buckeyes admitted to not coming out focused enough for the final 20 minutes. Butler shouldered some of the blame as a team captain, but Matta said he did not feel as if the lack of second-half fire reflected a step backward for his team, which has now won four straight and six of its last seven.
"Like coach said, we didn't come in with the intensity we did in the first half," said sophomore David Lighty, who finished with 16 points as the fourth OSU starter to score in double digits.
That effort was most reflected on the defensive end, Lighty said. In the first half, OSU forced 12 turnovers and finished with 21 overall. Ole Miss used more defensive intensity to force the Buckeyes to push the ball up the court quicker, resulting in quicker shots.
It also helped that the Rebels went 17 of 32 (53.1 percent) from the field in the second half compared to 8 of 28 (28.6 percent) in the first 20 minutes.
It took all of 10 minutes for the Buckeyes to firmly wrest control of the game from the Rebels in the first half. After Ole Miss knotted the score at 8 thanks to a 6-0 run aided by two OSU turners, the Buckeyes exploded to the tune of a 14-0 run that was only stemmed by a basket by Kenny Williams that made it 22-10 Buckeyes.
"They pressured us, and we have a bunch of good drivers and slashers," Turner said. "When they pressured us, they wouldn't let us use our outside game so we just took it to the hole. We were aggressive and that helped a lot in the first half."
OSU put together another run, this one of the 9-2 variety, and held a 17-point lead with 10:15 remaining in the first half. One quick look at the Ole Miss bench told the story.
The Rebels were ill-equipped to deal with OSU's defensive pressure and offensive intensity, and the Buckeyes were clearly going to advance to face Massachusetts in Thursday night's championship game. And suddenly, with one game to go, an OSU team that was as green as High St. on St. Patrick's Day is looking like a force to be reckoned with.
"This team has come a long way," Butler said. "We're playing great ball right now; the best ball we've been playing all year. Hopefully we carry that over to Thursday and come out with the win."
The Minutemen's 78-66 victory against Florida in the first game of the evening guaranteed that OSU would not draw the Gators in the title game. The two schools met last season for the national title. A rematch between the two schools for the NIT title would have been the first such game in history.
This marks the third trip for the Buckeyes to the NIT title game. OSU defeated Wyoming 73-63 in 1986 and suffered a 72-67 defeat at the hands of Connecticut two years later.