They had come too far to back down now. They had too little to play for, really, to not take their shot at Big Ten basketball immortality.
“We’re not going halfway here,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta told his team as it trailed No. 1-ranked and undefeated Illinois 64-62 during a timeout with 12 seconds left. “We’re going for the win.”
Sure enough, Matta drew up a play where junior forward Matt Sylvester would step out and attempt a three-pointer. The Buckeyes executed the play to perfection as Sylvester took a pass from Brandon Fuss-Cheatham on the right wing and drilled the trey heard ‘round the college basketball world.
The shot, with just 5.1 seconds left, lifted Ohio State to an improbable 65-64 upset of the Fighting Illini before a sellout crowd of 19,200 at Value City Arena Sunday.
Illinois had one last shot, but Roger Powell’s three-pointer at the buzzer missed the mark. VCA and the college basketball world had been turned on their collective ears. Illinois (29-1, 15-1) was denied a chance to be the first team to finish a Big Ten season unbeaten since Indiana did it in back-to-back years in 1974-75 and 1975-76.
“I feel like I’m in a dream,” said Sylvester, who tallied a career-high 25 points. “I feel like I’m going to wake up and it will all be over.”
For Ohio State, this was its national championship game. The Buckeyes are serving a self-imposed postseason ban this year in connection with NCAA rules violations that occurred under previous coach Jim O’Brien’s watch.
“We knew that in the back of our heads,” admitted Matta, whose first OSU team snapped a three-game losing streak and improved to 19-11 overall and 8-8 in Big Ten play. “We never said it, but this was the game.”
The victory has to rate as one of the biggest upsets in Ohio State basketball history. Many OSU students and fans rushed the floor and celebrated for several minutes after the final buzzer, hoisting OSU players on their shoulders.
“I’m speechless,” added OSU center and captain Terence Dials, who had 21 points and eight rebounds. “This has been an unbelievable run for this team. After all of the adversity we’ve been through, to beat Illinois, to beat the No. 1 team and for it to be on senior day, I’m at a loss for words right now.
“Coach told us in the locker room. This is the game that put Ohio State back on the map. We have a great young coach. We got a big win today on CBS. I think that can only help the program.”
The Buckeyes trailed by 11 points at halftime and by as many as 12 as late as 11-1/2 minutes remaining. But they slowly rallied and put themselves in position to snatch the game away in the final seconds.
“Saying this was a big win would be the understatement of the world,” Matta said. “I couldn’t be happier for these players, with everything they have been through. The commitment they have to this program is amazing. I told them going into the game they were going to have to give every ounce of everything they have.”
Matta has experience in pulling off upsets of undefeated No. 1-ranked teams. A year ago, his Xavier team crushed then-No. 1 St. Joseph’s 87-67.
“I’d like to be the other team, the No. 1 team,” Matta joked. “This wears a guy down. I’m living for the day I’m the No. 1 team and somebody else is trying to do it to me.”
This upset was predicated on defense and curtailing costly turnovers. Dee Brown led Illinois with 13 points, while Roger Powell and Luther Head each had 12 points. But the backcourt of Brown, Head and Deron Williams combined to go 7 for 27 from the floor. At the same time, OSU finished the game with just eight turnovers, none coming in the final 20 minutes.
“I don’t think we stopped them so much as we just wanted to take away their easy shots and their transition shots,” said OSU senior Tony Stockman, playing his last game at VCA.
“At halftime, Coach said if we took care of the ball and rebounded better, we would have a chance to be in this game,” said Fuss-Cheatham, also a senior.
The upset is even harder to comprehend when you consider that the Illini had beaten OSU by 19 points in the first meeting in Champaign, winning the Big Ten opener 84-65 on Jan. 5. Only four teams all year had played Illinois under 10 points. The Illini, which had won its games by an average of over 17 points, came into Columbus after wins of 36 points over Northwestern and 34 over Purdue.
“We needed to play the style we have been successful at playing,” said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. “Ohio State got us on our heels and did not quit. We backed off. This was something to learn as a coach, not to back off.”
Regarding the play of his three stellar guards, Weber said, “We expect so much out of all those guys every game. They just didn’t have it today.”
Illinois will still go into the Big Ten tournament in Chicago as the No. 1 seed. The Illini still have to be favored to also grab a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament as well.
“It wasn’t our goal to go undefeated,” Weber said. “This is something to learn from. At the first press conference, I said we were going to lose sooner or later and I guess I was right. The next stretch is the most important of the year. This is what people will remember.”
The win lifted Ohio State into sole possession of sixth place in the final standings. The Buckeyes will play 11th-seeded Penn State (7-22, 1-15) in an opening round game Thursday at 5 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2).
Illinois got 13 second-chance points during the first half in building its 38-27 advantage. After grabbing an early 5-4 lead, the Illini scored 11 straight points – five from Brown and four from Jack Ingram – to go up 16-4 with 14:26 left in the half.
OSU rallied with an 8-2 run. J.J. Sullinger hit a driving jumper. Then, after James Augustine made a layup inside, Dials rebounded a Sullinger miss and scored, Fuss-Cheatham hit a jumper in transition and Foster completed a back door layup off a feed from Sylvester to cut the deficit to 18-12 with 9:37 left.
The Illini got the lead back out to 11 quickly on a garbage basket by Powell and a three-pointer from Brown off a feed by Head to make it 23-12 with 7:55 left.
OSU got as close as five by scoring six straight. Sylvester made a trey and three free throws to cut the lead to 29-24 with 2:56 left.
But, as has been the case in many of OSU’s losses, the Buckeyes could not sustain the momentum to end the half. Illinois outscored OSU 9-3 to end the half. Particularly troubling was the closing sequence. OSU trailed 35-27 after Dials made a pair of free throws with 45.3 seconds left. Ingram then missed a shot at the Illinois end and OSU’s Jamar Butler rebounded with 25 seconds left.
OSU figured to hold for a late shot. But Sullinger saw a lane and drove to the basket. He made the shot but it was waved off by a charging foul as he crashed into Powell with 11.6 seconds left. And, instead of going in down six, disaster struck as Brown worked the ball to Head, who canned a three-pointer with one second left to put the Illini up 11.
“That was a big turning point in the game,” Matta said. “I felt we had a chance to cut it to seven or six there. Then, they came down and executed a play to perfection and he made a shot.”
Head hit two more threes in the first three minutes of the second half as the Illini clung to a 46-34 lead with 16:17 left.
But the Buckeyes rallied behind a 14-6 run to twice cut the lead down to four. Sylvester and Dials each had three-point plays during this run. Dials scored off a feed from Foster on the secondary break to cut the lead to 55-51 with 7:51 left. Then, after Powell tallied a rebound basket for Illinois, Dials’ rebound basket cut the lead to 57-53 with 6:29 left.
“The one thing we did, we continued to defend,” Matta said. “We started chipping away and at that point we said, `We can do this.’ ”
Augustine’s three-point play with 6:11 left gave the Illini a 60-53 advantage. But Foster answered with a three-pointer off a feed from Stockman to cut the lead to 60-56 with 5:29 left.
Augustine then tallied on a rebound basket for Illinois, but Foster’s two free throws with 3:37 left cut the lead back down to 62-58. Augustine answered again as he and Williams executed a perfect give-and-go for a slam and a 64-58 lead with 3:23 left. But the Illini would not score again.
After the teams traded misses, Dials made a spinning shot in the lane with 2:08 left. Augustine then traveled under pressure in the post with 1:51 left.
Sylvester isolated against Augustine and took him to the basket for a layup, getting the lead down to 64-62 with 1:40 left. Powell then had his shot inside rejected by Dials with 1:08 left.
But OSU could not tie or take the lead as Sylvester missed and Powell rebounded with 47 seconds left. OSU opted to defend and, when Head missed a three-pointer and Stockman rebounded with 17 seconds left, they had one last chance. OSU called a timeout with 12 seconds left to draw up the game winning play.
“When you’re playing the best team in college basketball you want a shot to win the game at the end,” Matta said. “And we got it. Fortunately, it was a positive ending.”
Sylvester canned his trey, giving just the second VCA sellout of the season something to cheer for.
The Illini had to go the length of the floor. Their first inbounds pass was knocked out of bounds by OSU’s Stockman with 2.2 seconds left. Then, the Buckeyes denied the Illini guards a chance to tie or win the game, leaving Powell to take the last shot.
“We were trying to foul,” said Matta, whose team had only committed five second-half fouls. “We had a foul to give. I thought we played it pretty well and Tony did a good job of getting his hand on the ball. We wanted to give as much help as we could (on the guards). It is frightening how well they shoot the ball.”
* Ohio State ended the year 15-2 at home this season, including 14-2 in Value City Arena. Ohio State is now 4-1 at VCA vs. the Illini, including three victories over ranked Illini squads. OSU is now 91-22 in seven years at VCA.
* The Buckeyes are 9-0 against ranked Big Ten teams at VCA when the facility is sold out. In all games, the Buckeyes are now 14-4 against ranked Big Ten teams at VCA, including a 3-1 record vs. Illinois.
* Overall, Ohio State is 131-212 all-time against ranked opponents and 55-106. OSU is now 7-9 all-time against the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, winning five of the last six games against No. 1 teams.
* This was the first time a No. 1-ranked team has played in Value City Arena. The highest ranked teams to play at VCA before were No. 3 Illinois and No. 3 Michigan State in 2001. Ohio State beat both teams that year, downing the Spartans 64-55 Jan. 27 and handling the Illini 63-61 Feb. 22. In all, Buckeyes have now faced five top-10 teams in Value City Arena and have a 4-1 record in those games. The only loss was a 69-68 setback to No. 9 Kansas Dec. 23, 2000.
* The last No. 1 team to play in Columbus was Indiana in 1993. The Buckeyes won that game on Feb. 23 in St. John Arena 81-77 in overtime. Ohio State is 4-3 overall in Columbus vs. No. 1-ranked teams. The Buckeyes have played the No. 1 team twice in the same season three times: Michigan in 1965 and Indiana twice in 1975 and 1976. The Buckeyes split with the Wolverines and fell both times to the Hoosiers in 1975 and '76.
In all seven Ohio State victories against No. 1 teams, and in 15 of the 16 total games vs. No. 1, Ohio State has entered the game unranked.
* Matta will be going for his fifth 20-game season in his fifth year as a college coach when the Buckeyes play Penn State on Thursday.
* The Buckeyes were 2-3 against ranked teams this year, improving Matta’s record to 11-12 against ranked teams. His teams are also 2-2 all-time against No. 1-ranked teams. Matta’s teams are also 68-8 all-time at home.
* Dials finished the regular season scoring in double figures in 22 of the last 25 games.
* Below are some photos from the today's huge upset:
Sylvester lays in a shot
JJ Sullinger celebrates the win
Terence Dials is surrounded by the fans who stormed the court