"How long is it gonna take us to go back to Columbus?" Matta recalled.
Matta and the Buckeyes, however, wouldn't need to make travel plans so soon. Closing the half on a 41-19 run, fifth-seeded Ohio State (25-8, 10-8) completed an improbable comeback against No. 4 seed Nebraska (19-12, 11-7), advancing to the conference tournament's semifinals with a 71-67 victory over the Cornhuskers on Friday.
"We've been in this position before. I don't know what it is. I don't know what it takes for us to play like that every possession, but for some reason we just kept looking up and saw we had a lot of time left," Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft said. "That's what kept us playing."
Ohio State trailed by double digits until the 9:36 mark in the second half when a LaQuinton Ross free throw cut Nebraska's lead to a 54-45 advantage. Ross would again come up big down the stretch, sinking a pair of free throws with 58.1 remaining on the clock to break a 63-all tie and give the Buckeyes the final lead of the game.
Ross' effort against the Cornhuskers was a big one, as the junior forward went for a career best 26 points and 13 rebounds, scoring at least 19 points for the fifth consecutive game.
"It's the month of March, man. I grew up watching this," Ross said. "I grew up watching college sports, especially college basketball knowing one day I hoped to be able play in March Madness and that's what I'm doing now. So I gotta bring my A-game."
Unlike it did on the previous day in the tournament's opening round against Purdue, Ohio State got off to a strong start against the Huskers, taking an 11-3 lead in the game's opening 5:03 of action. The Buckeyes again extended their advantage to eight points on an Amir Williams dunk that gave them a 20-12 lead with 8:50 left in the first half, but OSU proved unable to keep its pace.
Even with its leading scorer in Terran Petteway on the bench for the half's final seven minutes because of foul trouble, Nebraska closed the opening period on a 19-8 run before taking a 31-27 lead into halftime. The Huskers, however, were just getting warmed up as they opened the second half on a 17-2 stretch to extend their lead. Ultimately, Nebraska reeled off a 36-10 run over the course of the two halves, taking a 48-30 lead that left the Buckeyes looking forward to Selection Sunday.
"It was a familiar feeling, unfortunately," Craft said.
Ohio State's problems only seemed to compound when Ross was called for a technical foul for shoving a Nebraska player after a whistle with 14:58 left on the clock. But after the Huskers reeled off six straight points to push their lead to 18, the Buckeyes answered with nine of their own, using Ross' technical as a rallying point.
"I'm not saying it was the right thing, but it kind of sparked our team," Ross said. "We got a little angry after that and we were able to come back after that."
Added forward Sam Thompson: "We didn't like the physical play. We didn't like that they were jumping around on their bench and dancing on their bench. We're still Ohio State. That's a team that's beaten us one time and all the power to them for that win, but we don't feel that they should have that type of confidence against us. I think in the last 12 or so minutes, we did a good job of showing them that."
Utilizing a full court press, the Buckeyes forced seven Nebraska turnovers in the final 13:11 of action. The Huskers pushed their lead back to 11 points with a Petteway jumper, but Shannon Scott answered back with a three-pointer as Ohio State proceeded to go on a 13-6 run that cut Nebraska's advantage to 56-52 with 6:50 left in the game.
After a David Rivers jumper pushed the Huskers' lead back to six, Scott responded with a layup before finding Thompson for a slam to cut Nebraska's lead to two. Shavon Shields would extend the Huskers' advantage to five with a pair of free throws with 3:06 left on the clock, but the Buckeyes had one last run left in them.
"We knew that we could come back," Thompson said. "We know that no game is ever over. We know that if we keep crawling and keep fighting that we're going to give ourselves a chance to win."
An Amedeo Della Valle three-pointer sparked what was ultimately a 9-0 Ohio State run that saw Ross tie the game and then take the lead from the free throw line. Craft sealed the game with a layup with 20 ticks left on the clock, before Della Valle capped a scrappy 12-point, six-rebound, three-block, two-steal performance at the free throw line.
"Any guy that comes off the bench has got to come in with energy," Della Valle said. "You gotta give maximum effort every game."
Despite early struggles at the charity stripe, Ohio State connected on its final 10 free throws in its come from behind effort. Petteway paced Nebraska with 20 points, while Walter Pitchford added 15 points and Shields scored 12. Scott scored nine points off the bench for the Buckeyes and Williams added eight to Ohio State's cause.
With their win over the Huskers, the Buckeyes move onto the conference tournament semifinals where they'll face No. 1 seed Michigan (24-7, 15-3). Ohio State has faced the Wolverines in three of the past four conference tournaments, walking away with wins in all three matchups.
"They're a great team," Craft said of Michigan. "We played them close until down the stretch at our place. They just made more plays than we did. I'm excited to get them again."
The Buckeyes and Wolverines will tipoff at 1:40 PM (CBS), with the winner moving onto Sunday's conference championship game. Ohio State has appeared in five consecutive Big Ten tournament title games.