Ohio State’s dream of second straight trip to the Final Four ended Saturday night, but not before the Buckeyes staged a nearly epic comeback before finally dropping a 70-66 decision to Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament West region final before a crowd of 17,998 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
OSU (29-8) fell behind by a 56-36 margin with 11:02 remaining in the game and then went on a furious run that got them within three at 62-59 with 2:48 to go. But the Shockers (30-8) managed to hang on down the stretch as a cold shooting night ultimately spelled doom for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes never fully recovered from their poorest shooting half of the season in the opening 20 minutes, an effort that had them trailing by 13 at the break. They wound up connecting on only 19 of 61 attempts (31.1 percent) for the game, including just 5 of 25 from three-point range (20.0 percent).
Junior swingman Deshaun Thomas and sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross led Ohio State in scoring with 20 and 17 points, respectively, but the duo combined to make only 12 of 32 shots. Thomas was 8 for 20 and missed all six of his attempts from behind the arc, while Ross was 4 for 12, including 2 for 7 from deep.
Junior point guard Aaron Craft managed nine points, but was just 2 for 12 from the floor. Craft also led the Buckeyes with seven rebounds to go along with two assists and two steals. Junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. and sophomore Sam Thompson, who had been averaging a combined 20.7 points in the tournament, were held to five and four points, respectively.
Wichita State got double-figure scoring performances from four players, led by senior point guard Ron Armstead, who finished with 14 points. Junior forward Cleanthony Early and freshman guard Fred Van Vleet added 12 each, and sophomore guard Tekele Cotton tallied 10, including a huge three for the Shockers after Ohio State had whittled their lead to three in the late going.
Also making a huge contribution for ninth-seeded Wichita State was senior forward Carl Hill, who filled up the stat sheet with eight points, four rebounds and six blocked shots.
Cold shooting doomed Ohio State from the very outset of the game. The Buckeyes missed their first seven shots of the game and wound up an ice-cold 8 for 33 (24.2 percent) for the opening 20 minutes.
Despite the fact the ball simply would not fall, the game remained close for the first 10 minutes. In fact, OSU took a 9-7 lead at the 14:08 mark thanks to treys from Smith and Craft and an old-fashioned three-point play from Thomas.
Things were still tight more than five minutes later when Thomas bulled his way into the lane for a short basket to trim Wichita State’s lead to 17-15 with 8:44 remaining. But the lid on the Ohio State basket seemed to shut tightly after that as the Shockers finished the first half on an 18-7 run.
During the final 8½ minutes of the half, the Buckeyes made only 2 of 14 shots from the field and one of their makes was the result of a goaltending call against Wichita State.
Meanwhile, the Shockers weren’t exactly setting the world on fire – they connected only just 5 of 16 attempts during the run. But they got back-to-back threes from Cotton and backup guard Demetric Williams to gain their first double-digit lead of the game at 25-15 with 6:28 to play, and then took advantage of some friendly whistles to go 6 for 7 at the free-throw line during the final minute and a half to take a 35-22 lead into the locker room.
It was the lowest first-half output for the Buckeyes all season and their poorest shooting half. It was also their second largest halftime deficit of the year. OSU had trailed by 17 at the break of its 71-49 loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17.
Things went from bad to worse early in the second half as the Buckeyes squandered each of their first five possessions while watching the Shockers pad their lead. When Van Vleet connected on a three-ball at the 11:02 mark to give his team a 56-36 lead, it appeared the Shockers could begin their program’s first trip to the Final Four since 1965.
But the Buckeyes simply would not quit. Head coach Thad Matta switched to a pressure defense and the players began to challenge Wichita State inside, drawing fouls and converting those fouls into points.
Ohio State went on a 16-4 run over the next seven minutes to cut its deficit to single digits at 60-52 with 4:05 remaining, and then after the Shockers got a pair of free throws to go back up by 10, the Buckeyes got a trey from Ross and four more free throws – two each from Ross and sophomore guard Shannon Scott – and pull within three at 62-59 with 2:49 to play.
Cotton followed on Wichita State’s next possession with a clutch triple at the 2:21 mark to push the Shockers back ahead by six, but Thomas came right back on the other end of the floor for short jumper than made it 65-61 at the 2:07 mark.
Ohio State had a chance to cut further into that margin when Van Vleet missed a three at the other end of the floor. But Cotton managed to grab the offensive rebound away from Ross, and Van Vleet’s runner with the shot clock winding down bounced three times on the rim before falling through the cylinder to put Wichita State back on top by six at 67-61 with 59.3 seconds to go.
Craft couldn’t get his three-point to go on Ohio State’s next possession and the Buckeyes were forced to foul. And although the Shockers converted only 3 of 6 free throws down the stretch, OSU still couldn’t get crucial shots to go down.
Their last gasp came when senior center Evan Ravenel grabbed an offensive rebound – one of only eight rebounds the Buckeyes had off the offensive glass all night – but then had hit put-back attempt swatted away by Hall with only 17 seconds remaining.
Craft finally got a three to go down with 6.8 seconds left to make it 70-66, but it was too little too late.