Ohio State, as it turned out, had more than blind optimism as it spent the entire day genuinely convinced it was going to beat No. 3 Michigan.
It didn’t matter that the game was being played in a hostile Crisler Arena with an even angrier Wolverines team – one considered by many as the best in college basketball – still not over their close loss to the Buckeyes in Columbus only three weeks earlier.
“We came in thinking we were going to get this win, man,” sophomore LaQuinton Ross said. “Our whole team was confident we were going to beat them, but at the end it just didn’t happen that way.”
The No. 10 Buckeyes had reason to feel that way considering they played their most complete game of the season, but in the end it wasn’t enough to beat Michigan, who escaped with the 76-74 win in overtime to remain unbeaten at home.
That’s life in the Big Ten, where great efforts on the road are often not enough.
The Buckeyes instead have to settle for what will be remembered as a valiant effort, but one that wasn’t complete with all that was needed to shake up the conference standings and perhaps the landscape of college basketball.
“If there is one thing I can’t take out of it,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said, “it is that some guys came into their own. But we have to do it again whenever we play again. I saw what you saw.”
It was Ohio State’s most balanced offensive performance of the season. Deshaun Thomas led the Buckeyes with 17 points, LaQuinton Ross came off the bench for 16, Aaron Craft had 11 and Lenzelle Smith Jr. added 10. The Buckeyes (17-5, 7-3) shot 51.7 percent from the floor, and got points from eight different players.
But Tim Hardaway Jr. was too much, making five three-pointers in the second half before finishing with a game-high 23 points to lead the Wolverines (21-2, 8-2 Big Ten). Hardaway’s biggest play, however, came as time expired in overtime.
The Wolverines led by two when Glenn Robinson III missed his second free throw with 7.6 seconds remaining. Craft grabbed the rebound and darted down the court attempting to tie the game, but Hardaway blocked his shot at the rim to seal the victory.
“I got to the rim and tried to get the layup,” said Craft, who admitted he felt contact on the final play despite no foul being called. “You can look back and think of five different things I could have done, but in the moment I am happy with what I did.
“It just didn’t go our way… There was a lot of contact all day, and we (didn’t get the call at the end). We have to move on.”
Ohio State trailed 52-50 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game, but it scored on six-straight possessions to stay neck-and-neck with the Wolverines. It was the offensive efficiency Matta has waited all season to see his team realize, and because of it the Buckeyes led 64-62 with 3:48 remaining in the game.
Ross later followed his own miss with an offensive rebound and put-back inside to tie the game up at 70 with 1:36 remaining. Michigan took the lead when Mitch McGary dunked the ball with 1:05 remaining in the game, but Smith responded with a clutch shot to tie it again at 72 with 28 seconds remaining.
That set up Michigan with the final shot of regulation, and the team went to star point guard Trey Burke, who missed a step-back three as time expired in a play that had a striking resemblance to the shot he took on the Wolverines’ final possession in their loss to Ohio State in Columbus.
“It was like déjà vu,” Burke said.
Burke, who finished the game with 16 points, made a three on Michigan’s first possession of overtime. That triple accounted for more points than Ohio State scored during an overtime period in which Thomas didn’t even touch the ball.
“I was just trying to do anything to win the game,” Thomas said. “I was waiting for my time to come, and I was trying to be patient. I was focused on the other end to get a stop.”
For the second time this season, the Buckeyes fell in a conference road contest despite having the ball on the game’s final possession with a chance to tie or win. Close losses have added up to a significant two-game difference in the Big Ten standings behind No. 1 Indiana, the team the Buckeyes face at home on Sunday.
“We fought pretty hard and we really wanted this game,” Thomas said. “We came out strong and we felt like we played good enough to win this game. Now we just have to build on what we accomplished here, and rebound for another big game.”
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