William Buford stood in the hallway of Breslin Center shortly after his final regular season college basketball game. Ohio State’s lone senior was smiling.
That's because Buford was only minutes removed from burying perhaps the biggest shot of his career: a contested jumper from the top of the key that went through the hoop with only a second remaining to give the No. 10 Buckeyes a 72-70 victory over No. 5 Michigan State.
Ohio State – in large part because of the most impressive performance of Buford’s senior season – can now call itself Big Ten champions for the third time in as many years.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” Buford told BSB. “I am so happy that is the final moment I’ll have in my final regular season game. We have a lot to accomplish still and we understand that, but it feels great to come through for my team, especially like this.”
It hasn’t been a year since Buford’s 2-of-14 shooting performance helped Kentucky beat top-seeded Ohio State in the Sweet 16 of last year’s NCAA Tournament. In that game Buford had a similar opportunity to send the Buckeyes to victory.
He missed. This time it was different.
After Michigan State forward Draymond Green missed a shot with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, Ohio State called a timeout with one final possession. Head coach Thad Matta – like he has done all year – drew up a play for the senior.
“The second the shot left his hands I knew it was going in,” sophomore big man Jared Sullinger said. “We know people have questioned him in the past, but we know what he is. People don’t have to love William Buford, but we sure do. He came up big for us tonight.”
Buford finished the game with 25 points to help the Buckeyes (25-6, 13-5 Big Ten) avenge a 10-point loss to Michigan State on Feb. 11, a blunder that helped the Spartans gain control of the Big Ten race.
Sullinger added 14 points and 10 rebounds and he turned it over one time, nine less than he did when the Spartans were victorious in Columbus. Deshaun Thomas added 12 points and Aaron Craft had nine points, six assists and four steals.
Green led Michigan State (24-7, 13-5) with 19 points in his final home game, but the Spartans fell for the first time in the Breslin Center all season. The Spartans lost the opportunity at sole possession of the conference title and instead will share it with Ohio State and No. 13 Michigan.
“I think for this team to have an end to the regular season like that when things haven’t gone as well as everyone on the outside thought they were going to (was big),” Matta said. “I’ve seen this team continue to fight. When you’re as young as this team is, it is amazing to see. I am happy to see it end this way.”
For much of the first half it looked as if the season was going to end with a big thud, not an emotional high. The Buckeyes trailed 24-9 midway through the first half due in large part to shooting even worse than the 26 percent they did when Michigan State ended their 39-game home winning streak three weeks ago.
The Buckeyes looked to be on track for a blowout loss in the regular season finale, particularly because Sullinger missed his first five shot attempts and finished the first half only 2-of-10 from the field.
Michigan State, however, was unable to put Ohio State away. The Buckeyes trailed by only nine at the break and scored the first six points of the second half to keep the game competitive, taking their first lead at 52-51 with 9:53 remaining in the game since Buford opened the contest with two free throws.
Sullinger picked up his fourth foul with 8:31 remaining in the game when Derrick Nix scored and drew the harm, but the Buckeyes didn’t miss a beat with the All-American center on the bench.
Reserve big man Evan Ravenel had an impressive spurt together when scoring seven points and adding an assist. Ohio State took the 64-63 lead with 3:40 remaining in the game when Ravenel drove the lane and dished it to Thomas for a layup.
The two teams traded leads in the final minutes of the game before Buford put the team up for good.
“You always have to be ready,” Ravenel told BSB. “You have to be in the game even when you’re not on the floor so when you go in you know what this team needs. It was great to come in and not let up even with Sully on the bench.”
Ohio State will have the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament starting this week in Indianapolis and will play its first game at 9 p.m. Friday against the winner of a Thursday matchup between the No. 6 and 11 seeds.
It was exactly a week ago when Ohio State thought its chances at the Big Ten title were dead. Seven days later, the Buckeyes enter the postseason on an emotional high unlike anything the team could have predicted.
“It’s great to get this Big Ten championship hat,” Ravenel said. “It’s the first time for me and the first time for a lot of the guys in our locker room. We’re all just so happy and ready to take on the next challenge in our season.”
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