Tennessee Familiar For Buckeyes In Tourney

Ohio State's Sweet 16 game Friday night will be against Tennessee, the same school the Buckeyes met in their last regional semifinal appearance and a squad OSU has faced four times in four years. Ties between the two schools are deep, which could make Friday night's game an interesting affair if the past is any indication.

When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, it's hard to separate the Ohio State men's basketball team and the University of Tennessee.

As the Buckeyes and Volunteers prepare to face off Friday night a Sweet 16 matchup, it's natural to think that this is the second time in four years the teams will battle for the right to move on to the Elite Eight.

But the ties go back even longer than that, to 1999. That year's surprising OSU Final Four run culminated with regional semifinal and final wins against Auburn and St. John's in Thompson-Boling Arena – the Knoxville home of UT basketball.

Yes, it seems like the Buckeyes can't escape that shade of orange.

This match with Tennessee will be the program's fourth in the last four years, joining a regular-season home-and-home series in 2007 and '08 that the teams split. When asked for his memories of each contest, fifth-year OSU head coach Thad Matta had a quick answer.

"Ron Lewis' shot, Greg Oden's block, Jon Diebler's missed three over on the wing," he said.

Let's start at the beginning. Lewis provided a prelude to his later NCAA Tournament heroics in the regular-season game staged in Columbus on Jan. 13, 2007. The fifth-ranked Buckeyes trailed No. 16 Tennessee by a point before Lewis drained a three-pointer with 11.2 seconds to play that gave OSU a 68-66 victory – the first win over a ranked team for the so-called "Thad Five" that included current junior David Lighty.

Two months later, the Buckeyes needed even more magic in the Sweet 16. Tennessee built a 49-29 lead late in the first half, but Lighty earned a three-point play in the final seconds to set the halftime margin at 17 points.

From there, the Buckeyes took over, cutting into the Tennessee lead quickly during the second half.

"I remember saying at halftime we have to get this thing under 10 with 10 minutes to go, and it was under 10 with three minutes gone in the half," Matta said.

Ohio State tied the score at 64 and the teams went back and forth, finding themselves knotted again at 79 thanks to a unlikely three-pointer from the hands of Lighty – who had made only seven all season.

"It was my first three in like a month and a half, almost two months," said Lighty, who had seven points, two rebounds and an assist in 20 minutes. "I was just feeling good that game. I was in a rhythm and I was open so I just let it fly. I'm happy I took it. I mean, I made it and we needed it at the time, so it was a good thing."

Freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr. ended up giving the Buckeyes an 85-84 lead with a free throw in the waning seconds, but he missed the second to give Tennessee a chance to win. The whole thing culminated with Oden's dramatic block, as the center leaped and sent Ramar Smith's layup into the seats as the buzzer sounded.

While that's the natural comparison game considering it happened in the same round as the upcoming clash, the more relevant contest may have taken place a year later in 2008. In that one, a young Buckeye squad traveled to Knoxville and dropped a tough 74-69 decision to the seventh-ranked Volunteers, one of many close losses that kept OSU out of the NCAA Tournament that year.

Standout Evan Turner and current OSU starters Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale saw time in that contest, while Tennessee was represented by second-round starters forward Wayne Chism, guard J.P. Prince and center Brian Williams.

The leading scorer for that contest was Turner, who posted a double-double with 21 points and 10 boards while making only two turnovers during what was one of the bright spots of an uneven freshman campaign.

"I think right before that our assistant coaches were working me out extra every day," he said. "They showed me what hard work could get. The type of success definitely added to my fire to keep working hard and getting better. That's what really triggered everything."

While Turner used that success against UT as a motivator, Diebler was on the other side of the coin. He missed two late three-pointers that could have tied the game before late foul shots set the margin at five points.

"I was open a lot my freshman year because I didn't shoot too well," Diebler jokes. "I would have liked to make it, but it was cool I guess. Again, it was a learning experience, just like my whole freshman year was."

The culmination of those learning experiences comes Friday night with this group of Buckeyes' first shot at the 16. And if past performances are any indication, there should be plenty of drama when there's scarlet, gray and orange on the floor.

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