NEW YORK – It might not have been the novel he was aiming to write, but Jamar Butler found his storybook ending
The senior captain and one-half of the all-time winningest class in Ohio State history ensured that he would not go out as a loser, helping the Buckeyes to a 92-85 victory against Massachusetts in the championship game of the MasterCard NIT Tournament.
The victory ensured that the team’s three seniors – Butler, Matt Terwilliger and Othello Hunter – would all end their careers on a high note. And while it was not the highest note possible, the Buckeyes were simply focused on coming home as champions.
“I’m just happy to come out on top with a win in my last game of my career,” Butler said. “I’m proud of my teammates and coaches and just happy right now.”
But to do so, the Buckeyes had to turn the tables on the Minutemen, who entered the game having overcome leads of 10 or more points in each of their last three games. This time, it was UMass with the 10-point lead and OSU forced to come from behind.
It took all of 2:39 in the second half to do so, as the Buckeyes (24-13) turned a five-point halftime deficit into a four-point lead thanks to an 11-2 run that was keyed by Butler and Hunter. OSU gained the lead on a layup by Butler after he came up with a steal, and one possession later Hunter buried a trey – just his second of the entire season – to give the Buckeyes a 47-43 lead.
They would not trail again, and the Buckeyes found themselves headed back to Columbus with a new piece of hardware to show for their effort.
A contest that resembled a track meet more than a basketball game at times saw the Buckeyes shoot 56.1 percent from the floor (32 of 57) compared to 36.8 percent (32 of 87) for the Minutemen (25-11). UMass’ shooting totals were inflated by the fact that they nabbed 30 offensive rebounds and finished with a 49-37 edge on the glass.
“That last seven minutes, that was some of the fastest basketball I had ever seen,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said. “I was having the time of my life as a coach watching that, and our guys did a great job of finishing strong.”
Although OSU never trailed after claiming the lead in the second half, the Minutemen did pull even with 6:19 remaining when guard Ricky Harris connected on his second consecutive trey to knot the score at 68.
But the Buckeyes countered with freshman center Kosta Koufos, who found himself wide open in the right corner and buried a three-pointer to put OSU back on top. UMass would get within one point two more times but could never get over the hump.
“You’ve got to give Ohio State credit – I thought a couple of times we had them,” UMass head coach Travis Ford said. “But I thought we gave up a few too many easy layups here and there.
“That’s how you win championships. They played well.”
Only some solid three-point shooting by the Buckeyes kept it a five-point UMass lead at the half. Koufos, who entered the game averaging 17.3 points per contest in the tournament, was held to just two first-half points and was largely a non-factor.
He would finish strong, however, pouring in 21 second-half points. Afterward, he was honored as the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“I just had to play patient,” he said. “The first half I played within myself. We talked at halftime and we just had to be more patient with the ball.”
Koufos led OSU with 23 points in what might have been his final game in the Scarlet and Gray. One season ago, he turned down millions of dollars to play professionally overseas and is projected as a first-round NBA draft pick this season.
After the game, he declined to speculate on his future.
OSU freshman guard Evan Turner, who had missed his last 11 attempts from beyond the arc entering the contest, hit on three first-half attempts to help the Buckeyes keep pace with the streaking Minutemen. However, UMass’ pressure and speed were giving OSU all it could handle.
The Buckeyes used an early 9-0 run to grab an 11-10 lead at the 15:59 mark, but UMass started putting distance between itself and the top seed in the tournament shortly thereafter. With the score knotted at 17, the Minutemen went on a 12-5 run to open up a seven-point lead. That run was buoyed by back-to-back treys from UMass’ Gary Forbes, the latter of which came after an OSU turnover at the other end.
OSU cut it to two points at 29-27 thanks to a trey by Turner and a layup by Butler, but sloppy play by the Buckeyes allowed the Minutemen to open up a first-half high-water-mark lead of 10 points that was capped by wide-open treys converted by Luke Bonner and Forbes with 3:54 left.
OSU would cut it to three, but two free throws taken by Chris Lowe set the halftime score at 41-36. It was nearly a seven-point UMass lead, but Forbes’ driving layup attempt was partially blocked by OSU’s Othello Hunter and wound up wedged between the rim and the backboard.
In all, the Buckeyes committed 11 first-half turnovers and were outrebounded 24-13. As a team, OSU hit on half (7 of 14) treys in the first 20 minutes.
In his final game, Butler finished with 19 points and eight assists against just one turnover. Turner had 20, while Hunter turned in 17 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
The win is OSU’s second NIT title and comes 22 years since the Buckeyes beat Wyoming for the 1986 title.