The complications the Ohio State basketball team faced in February had disappeared, and an 11-game winning streak that spanned through the end of March made it way too easy to forget that this team was once clearly flawed.
“We had come together unlike any team I’ve ever been a part of,” Aaron Craft said.
And because of that, Ohio State had gone from being a wart-ridden basketball team to a legitimate national title contender in six quick weeks.
Here No. 2-seeded Ohio State stood in the Elite Eight in Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Mach 30, a win over No. 9 Wichita State – the so-called Cinderella of the NCAA Tournament – away from making its second consecutive trip to the Final Four.
The mighty Buckeyes – the bell of the ball – were poised to be the midnight strike that reminded the world that the Shockers didn’t belong on the stage most had come to figure this Ohio State team would eventually grace.
The game was a mere formality.
Then clock hit midnight, and it was Ohio State wearing rags for clothes.
Wichita State forced the Buckeyes back to its old February form in a 70-66 win in the West Region final, staking its claim in the Final Four while leaving Ohio State in a heartbroken locker room wondering where it all went wrong.
Ohio State settled for outside shots, couldn’t force turnovers or get into transition and struggled to get points in its half-court offensive sets. It looked a lot more like the team that lost 71-49 at Wisconsin on Feb. 17 than the one that many penciled in on their brackets to play on the final day of this year’s season.
“We weren’t the team we were during our win-streak today,” center Evan Ravenel said, the team's lone senior. “If we played like we did during this great run we were on for 40 minutes, we probably would be going to the Final Four.
“But we didn’t, and we aren’t.”
In the end, Ohio State was exposed as the Cinderella. Not in the same sense as a mid-major program shaking the bracket up with upsets, but it wasn’t the perfectly constructed team that it had come to resemble.
And because of it, its season is over.
“It ends really quickly,” Craft said. “It was a lot of things. We didn’t score in transition, we get out and go like we normally do and we couldn’t get stops. You have to give the other team a lot of credit, but that’s the ballgame.”
Ohio State advanced through a West Region that was crippled by upsets – using back-to-back last-second shots to advance past Iowa State and Arizona – to get to this point.
Against the Shockers, it wasn’t supposed to need a magical solution to advance. But then Ohio State found itself hoping for a miracle to stay alive.
Playing its worst half of basketball since the loss to the Badgers in Madison, Ohio State shot 24.2 percent from the floor in the first half – making only 8-of-33 shots, most of which came from forced outside looks – before falling behind 35-22 at halftime.
“We have been told since the beginning of the tournament that one bad half of basketball can end a season,” Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “We shot poorly, we didn’t play our best and Wichita State is a really good team. It ended up happening.”
Thad Matta hoped this game would be the exception to his advice. He told his team at halftime to concentrate getting back within 10 points in the first few minutes of the second half, but Ohio State couldn’t overcome its exacerbated issues it thought it had put in the permanent past.
Wichita State, instead, expanded its lead to 20 points at 53-33 with 12:08 remaining in the game, doing so by dominating the Buckeyes that were widely considered to be deeper and more talented bunch.
“We didn’t give up,” sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross said. “This team has a lot of fight in it and we knew we were going to battle back. We weren’t just going to lay down and let our season end.”
Ohio State rallied to get as close as three points at 62-59 with 2:49 remaining in the game. The Shockers had their backs against the wall, and Ohio State looked primed to pull off its third stunning victory in as many games.
But cold shooting – perhaps appropriately so – doomed Ohio State in the end, and the Shockers held onto the four-point victory.
“Being down 20 points is tough,” Matta said.
One bad half.
That’s been the story in each of the last three Ohio State seasons, campaigns that were ended prematurely because of one poor half of basketball. All three of those teams – this year included – were good enough to win a national title.
“We just lost a basketball game that we thought we should have won if we came out and played our best basketball and we didn’t,” sophomore Sam Thompson said. “That’s all I know right now. I have no perspective on the season right now.”
Maybe in time, Ohio State will look back at this season as a success.
Right now, it’s a missed opportunity caused by ghosts of the past.
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