It was a game like this that Thad Matta wanted his team to play in before even pondering whether Ohio State deserved the distinction as the No. 4 team in college basketball. Call it the Buckeyes’ first test, in the advanced class.
Win or lose, Matta knew he’d have the answers after watching his team play against the No. 2 Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium, an arena that yet again showed why it has long asserted itself as one of the jewels of its kind.
With Cameron Crazies hanging over the student sanction, many of which drenched in blue paint waiting for even the smallest excuse to scream, Ohio State felt as if it was passing the exam it has waited all summer to take.
But before the Buckeyes completed the test in full – which would have consisted of finishing the game’s entire 40 minutes – Duke rallied on the floor it hasn’t lost on to a nonconference foe in 97 games to knock off Ohio State 73-68 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The challenge finished in a 6-6 tie.
“They made some big plays,” Matta said of Duke, who now has posted wins against top five foes in three of its six wins. “I think that we go home and take a look at this thing and there’s going to be some areas where we had chances to make plays and didn’t.”
That wasn’t the case in the first half, even with leading scorers Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft saddled with foul trouble. After scoring five-straight points to extend Ohio State’s lead to seven, Thomas picked up his second foul with 10:01 remaining in the first half and was forced to watch the remainder of the stanza from the bench.
Craft joined him on the bench with 4:39 remaining until the break, yet the Buckeyes took an eight-point lead at 31-23 into the locker room. Solid defense, tough buckets and contributions from youthful bench players were reasons. Matta was impressed.
Neither the hometown team that has become synonymous with responding to such feats from opponents, nor the Crazies that adore them, were ready to pack it in.
Duke took the momentum out of the locker room when Mason Plumlee finished a one-handed dunk off a fast-break lob just more than two minutes into the second half that got the crowd back on their feet. Duke was back within six, 33-27, shortly after OSU opened up its first 10-point lead of the game.
Sensing the Blue Devils (7-0) were ready to make a run, Matta called a quick timeout to gather his team. Trading buckets with the Blue Devils from there, the Buckeyes weathered the storm to maintain a six-point lead deep into the game when Thomas knocked down a jumper to give OSU the 46-40 advantage with 11:25 remaining.
Again, the Blue Devils went on a run and cut OSU’s leads to two points with 8:40 remaining to play. As they did the entire game, the Buckeyes had another answer when Thomas, who finished with a team-high 16 points despite missing a big chunk of the first half, knocked down a jumper to extend OSU’s lead by out to five.
When Duke cut it to one on four-straight points from freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, senior big man Evan Ravenel answered with a quick hook shot in the post to extend the Buckeyes’ lead to three. That’s the last time they’d lead for the remainder of the game.
The Blue Devils tied the game at 53 when Ryan Kelly knocked down a 3-pointer, then he gave Duke its first lead since 9-7 when he hit another three two possessions later to lift his team to the 56-53 advantage. Matta said it was the same play and the Buckeyes were expecting it, yet they weren’t able to make a stop.
“We were kind of hoping Kelly hadn’t found his rhythm yet, but he obviously did tonight,” Matta said. “He had clean looks at it and he knocked them down.”
In a hostile environment unlike anything the Buckeyes had faced all year, they ran out of answers. And shots. And gas.
Despite providing productive minutes in the first half, LaQuinton Ross and Shannon Scott saw little time in the second half.
The Buckeyes instead turned to point guard Aaron Craft to provide an offensive spark down the stretch, but he was of little help because his jump shot went cold. Despite finishing with 11 points, the junior point guard converted on only three of his 15 field goal attempts.
“I had the looks, I just wasn’t knocking them down,” Craft said. “That’s going to happen sometimes, and unfortunately it did tonight.”
Plumlee finished with a team-high 21 points, Sulaimon scored all of his 17 in the second half and Kelly finished with 15 after knocking down crucial buckets late in the game to lift his team on their home floor.
“I think the biggest thing was that Rasheed (Sulaimon) stepped up,” Kelly said. “He was kind of in a lull in the first half, but he played so big in the second half. They were going out at our perimeter, and he responded.”
Perhaps the Buckeyes learned they belong on the same floor with teams like Duke, one that has already proven it is for real having beaten the likes of Kentucky, Louisville and now Ohio State early in the season.
The more prominent things Ohio State learned are more pressing, and need fixed. Among questions the team failed to answer is where consistent secondary scoring options to Thomas will come from and whether the team can stay defensively focused for long periods of time.
“We had a lead with less than eight minutes to go in this game, and we will take that every time.” Craft said. “We just have to go back, watch film and find a way to get better before our next game on Saturday.”
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