William Buford decided that he had seen enough.
With No. 1 Ohio State holding a seven-point lead against Michigan in the semifinal round of the Big Ten Tournament, the junior saw freshman teammate Jared Sullinger again tangled up with a member of the Wolverines. Like any good teammate would do, Buford went over to confront Jordan Morgan.
No punches were thrown, words were exchanged and the Buckeyes would go on to earn a 68-61 victory against the Wolverines. With the win, OSU (31-2) advances to the championship game of the conference tournament.
“They’re always messing with him: hacking him, fouling him and messing him up and I don’t think he deserves that,” Buford said of Sullinger. “I just made sure that I have his back.
“I’ve never seen anybody get beaten like him. He’s either going to score on you or you’ve got to beat on him. Those are your only two options. They’ve just been tearing him up this year. I wanted to let him know that I had his back no matter what.”
With the Buckeyes on a 5-0 run that had pushed their lead to 52-45 with 8:33 remaining, Darius Morris missed a shot that went out of bounds with 7:44 remaining. After battling for the rebound, Morgan was flat on his back and entangled with OSU’s Jared Sullinger.
Morgan’s arm lingered around Sullinger’s leg a second too long for Buford’s liking, and as the 6-8 forward got to his feet, the 6-6 guard let him know that. Morgan responded with a shove, and Sullinger came in to clear things up. No fouls were assessed, but the OSU coaches came running out to separate the players. OSU’s David Lighty and Jon Diebler walked back to their bench with smiles, and Sullinger took a seat for the first time in the tournament.
He would return to action and finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds one day after putting up 20 and 18, respectively, in an overtime win against Northwestern. In that game, Sullinger also went 16 of 18 from the charity stripe including a 10-for-10 performance in overtime during which he was not credited with a shot attempt. This time, however he was just 4 for 10 from the free-throw line as he drew contact on most possessions.
“I thought he had a heck of a basketball game today,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said. “He played through the physicality. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit: he never got frustrated. He just kept going back. The biggest thing he does is he just keeps rebounding the basketball as well.”
The scuffle was part of a 16-0 run that turned a 47-45 OSU lead into a 63-45 blowout and spurred the Buckeyes into the Big Ten tournament title game for the fifth time in six years. It also answered an 8-2 U-M run that was halted when Matta burned a timeout with 9:42 remaining in the half.
One of three players to score during the run, freshman guard Aaron Craft ended it with a pair of free throws with 4:49 remaining. He had five points during the run while Buford had six and Sullinger had four. During the stretch, the Wolverines missed all eight of their shots and turned the ball over once.
“I think we just started guarding more,” Craft said. “We got back to what we were doing yesterday. We were trading baskets, so when you can start getting stops and turnovers you can get easy baskets. That’s where the runs come from.”
Buford had an assist on a Craft three-pointer on the first possession after the scuffle and then scored the next six points for his team.
The Wolverines did not go away without a fight, however: U-M closed the game on a 16-5 run and pulled within four points with less than 15 seconds remaining but it was too little, too late. It continued a run of futility for the Wolverines, who lost to the Buckeyes by a combined 13 points in two previous meetings this season.
“We’ve been up 12 at their place, we’ve been up 15 at our place and we were up 18 here and they came back,” Sullinger said. “They never quit. Michigan never quits. Good luck to them in the (NCAA) tournament – I know they’re going to make it.”
One night after a tough all-around shooting performance, a number of Buckeyes turned things around. Chief among them were Buford and Diebler, a combined 7 for 24 from the field in the win against the Wildcats. Each had 16 points, with Diebler going 6 for 12 from the field and Buford going 7 for 15.
The Buckeyes held on for a 31-27 halftime lead despite only getting a combined 13 minutes from senior David Lighty and freshman Aaron Craft. The two accounted for OSU’s first four team fouls and headed to the bench, Craft at 12:35 and Lighty at 9:46.
When Lighty checked out, the Buckeyes held a 16-12 lead. In their places came freshmen Deshaun Thomas and Jordan Sibert, the latter of whom was pressed into his first significant action since Big Ten play began.
Both responded well. Thomas put up four points, three rebounds and a block during the half while Sibert turned a steal into a two-handed dunk at the other hand that gave his team a 20-17 lead. Thomas finished with nine points and four rebounds in 21 minutes of action.
With Lighty and Craft on the bench, the Wolverines were able to tie the score three times in the first half but could not take the lead.
“They did a great job,” Matta said. “Deshaun has played a lot more than Jordan, but those guys continue to work hard every day in practice and get the job done. This was just an opportunity for them and I was very, very pleased with what they brought to the table.”