With Dallas Lauderdale and B.J. Mullens setting the tempo down low and a host of guards chipping in from outside, the Buckeyes knocked off top-seeded Michigan State and advanced to the championship game of the Big Ten tournament with an 82-70 victory at Conseco Fieldhouse.
The Buckeyes (22-9) methodically built a second-half lead that stretched to as many as 17 points and then held on as the Spartans (26-6) mounted an unsuccessful but exciting late comeback attempt.
"I think we were playing with so much energy and confidence that we were making all the right reads," OSU sophomore guard Jon Diebler said. "Everything seemed to be clicking. We've all had games like that but it just feels good because a lot of people have questioned our toughness getting on the boards but for the most part we did all right tonight.
For the game, MSU was 27 for 71 (38.0 percent) from the floor and just 3 for 21 (14.3 percent) while the Buckeyes were better than 50 percent from both. That allowed OSU to extend what had been a five-point halftime lead into a 17-point advantage with 5:41 remaining when Diebler knocked down a three-pointer.
From there, OSU simply needed to hold onto the victory – and on a few occasions, that seemed more difficult than it sounded. A little more than a minute late, the Spartans had closed to within 10 points thanks to some sloppy play by the Buckeyes that made it 68-58 OSU with 4:33 remaining.
That was as close as the Big Ten's regular-season champions would get, however, as the Buckeyes again pushed the lead to 17 points with 57 seconds remaining before the Spartans scored the final five points of the game to set the final margin.
It was an impressive show of dominance from an OSU team that was viewed as an NCAA Tournament bubble team two weeks ago. The Spartans held a 12-11 lead until a Diebler three-pointer with 13:27 remaining in the first half put the Buckeyes up for good.
OSU was led on the stat sheet by sophomore guard Evan Turner's 18 points, but all of his points came in the second half as he drew the primary focus of MSU's defense. The Buckeyes also got 17 from Diebler, 14 from freshman William Buford and 12 from Mullens.
All but one of Buford's points came in the first half as he helped compensate for Turner's absence from the stat sheet. In addition, Lauderdale added 7 points on 3 of 3 shooting and had a monster block.
"I hope that says a lot about our team, that our leading scorer doesn't score in the first half and we're still up five at halftime," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "To his credit, we had talked going into the game that they were going to bring the house at him and he made some good reads, some good decisions and guys were making shots."
The story of the game was in the post, however, as Mullens and Lauderdale held court and made life miserable for the likes of Goran Suton and Raymar Morgan. The two starters combined for 16 points on 8 of 13 shooting but seldom found good looks.
The Buckeyes headed into their locker room with a 34-29 lead thanks to a 6-2 run to close the half. The score was not set until MSU's Korie Luscious drove to the basket from the right wing and had his heavily contested shot rim out and Diebler's half-court attempt found only backboard.
To get to that point, OSU had opened up an eight-point lead thanks to a 12-3 run that was interrupted only by a Lucious three-pointer. Otherwise, the Spartans missed eight shots and turned the ball over seven times during that stretch. The Buckeyes were keyed by three-pointers from Jeremie Simmons and Diebler but were hampered by three turnovers – two un-enforced on back-to-back possessions.
The lead would have been one point greater, but a William Buford three-pointer was later reviewed and ruled a two-pointer when replays showed that his foot was on the line.
OSU advances to its fifth Big Ten tournament title game, having won it in 2002 and 2007.
"I just think we're really focused right now," Turner said. "We focused on what it takes to beat a great team like Michigan State. We know to win this game we had to play tough. Our focus was being tough. Coach said toughness and rebounding is going to win this game, and that's what we were trying to do."