INDIANAPOLIS-- Thad Matta had a simple message for his Ohio State basketball team before Saturday’s semifinal matchup with top-seeded Michigan State.
“The quote Coach Matta put on the board was, ‘We need to take men into this game, not boys’”, said sophomore post player Dallas Lauderdale. “If you take boys in, you won’t rebound.”
The Spartans came into the contest outrebounding opponents by more than ten a game, but Ohio State hung tough on the glass, grabbing 33 boards to Michigan State’s 39. All-Big Ten guard Evan Turner led his team with a double-double (18 points and 10 rebounds) as the Bucks shocked Michigan State, 82-70.
Turner did all his scoring damage in the second half, and his outburst helped Ohio State avenge a pair of regular-season losses and advance to Sunday’s championship game against either Purdue or Illinois.
Freshman William Buford said the difference between this game and the season’s first two meetings was a focus at the defensive end.
“We just came in with a different mindset,” Buford said. “We wanted to lock down on D.”
Consider that mission accomplished. The Buckeyes did a tremendous job bothering Michigan State’s long-range shooters, and the Spartans finished a miserable 3-21 (14%) from behind the three-point line.
“I think we have a little bit better understanding of roles and actions,” Matta explained when discussing his team’s defensive improvement. He especially credited Buford for making “tremendous strides defensively”.
Another first-year player, center B.J. Mullens, gave his team great production off the bench, posting 12 points in only 15 minutes. Mullens said he was just “trying to go into the paint, be physical with the bigs, and open it up for the guys outside.”
With Mullens finishing inside and Buford succeeding on the perimeter (he finished with 14 points and 9 boards), the young blood sparked the Buckeyes to one of the highest-scoring outputs in recent tournament memory. In fact, before Saturday, it had been five years since any team cracked 80 in the Big Ten tourney.
For the Buckeyes to win it all, their focus needs to carry over into Sunday afternoon.
“We need the same mindset [tomorrow] that we had going in this one”, Buford said after the gigantic win. “Just be aggressive.”
Buford actually left the game in the final minute with an apparent injury, but he told me afterwards it was just “some cramping; nothing too serious.”
Ohio State will be appearing in its fifth tournament final in eight years on Sunday. According to Mullens, the Bucks don’t care who they face in the game: “This is the Big Ten championship. You’ve got to come out and play whoever it is.”
A message to the rest of the league, though: the young Buckeyes aren’t just here to make the final. They plan to win.
“We’re coming together at exactly the right time,” Lauderdale said Saturday. “None of us want to go home yet.
“We don’t want to lose.”