The second upset proved tougher than the first for the Tech men’s basketball team—ultimately too tough to complete.
Despite putting up a strong effort against talented No. 2 seed Ohio State, the Jackets were victimized by foul trouble in their second-round battle against the Buckeyes, and Ohio State pulled away in the second half to defeat the Jackets 75-66 in Sunday’s contest at the Bradley Center.
The loss marked the end of the season for the Jackets, who went 4-2 in postseason play between the ACC and NCAA Tournaments to finish the year 23-13 overall.
“I thought our guys played really hard [this season]…we were really unlucky at points this year and lost some close games, but they never stopped working—they never wavered in their effort and concentration. I thought our guys had a great year, a very good year,” said Head Coach Paul Hewitt.
Three players finished the game in double-figure points for the Jackets, led by junior forward Gani Lawal’s 11. Freshman forward Derrick Favors and freshman guard Glen Rice Jr. added 10 apiece, and sophomore guard Iman Shumpert led the team with eight rebounds.
Sunday’s game was the second in a row in which the Jackets faced off against the Player of the Year of a major conference. After holding Oklahoma State’s James Anderson in check on Friday, Tech had less success against Buckeye guard-forward Evan Turner, the Big Ten Player of the Year. Turner had nine turnovers against constant pressure from the Jackets, but he still had a stellar performance, falling just short of a triple-double with 24 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.
“I was just trying to take what the defense gave me. I was just trying to…make plays and get everybody involved,” Turner said.
Guard Jon Diebler added 20 points and forward David Lighty had 18 for Ohio State, which advanced to the Sweet 16 to face No. 6 seed Tennessee.
The Jackets got off to a quick start and opened a 10-2 lead against the favored Buckeyes. The first points of the game came from Rice, who was fouled while putting up a three-pointer from the right wing and hit all three shots from the foul line.
Tech was aggressive on defense early on, applying a full-court press early in the game—and for much of the opening half—to try to force the Buckeyes into turnovers. It worked early on, as after Rice put Tech ahead 3-0, the Jackets forced turnovers on three straight possessions.
“Evan Turner’s a great player…but he’s had two or three games this year where he had at least 10 turnovers, so that’s something we wanted to capitalize on,” Hewitt said.
Lawal scored six straight points for Tech to help open a 14-6 lead, but the Buckeyes battled back with a 15-2 run over a span of 4:34 to take the lead. Guard Jon Diebler sparked the run with a trio of free throws, and Turner scored eight points as part of the run. OSU locked down defensively as well, forcing Tech into three turnovers and four missed three-pointers.
“We were sloppy [early on] and had some turnovers, but we kept defending, and we had a stretch in the first half where I thought our defense was really, really good,” said Ohio State Head Coach Thad Matta.
As the first half wore on, the scoreboard indicated that the Jackets were well in contention.
Tech quickly found itself in foul trouble, though. Lawal’s foul with 11:43 to go in the opening half put the Buckeyes in the bonus, and Tech finished the first half with 12 fouls as a team, including three by Lawal and two each by Favors, Rice and junior guard Moe Miller.
“Some of the fouls we committed in the first half were just silly fouls—the types of fouls we stayed away from in the latter part of the season, and certainly Friday night. But we just got back to reaching and grabbing and not contesting the shot on top or at the rim,” Hewitt said.
Lawal’s third foul came with 2:11 left in the half, and although he had been playing well against OSU’s front line, he ended up playing only five minutes in the second half.
“[The fouls] took us out of our rhythm,” Lawal said.
With both Favors and Lawal in foul trouble, Hewitt put redshirt senior center Brad Sheehan along with senior forward Zach Peacock. Sheehan was one of five Tech reserves who played in the game, with those five combining for 71 minutes on the court. By contrast, OSU used two players off its bench, and they played a combined 13 minutes; Turner, Diebler and guard William Buford all played the entire 40 minutes.
A game that was largely a close, back-and-forth defensive struggle in the first half saw the teams combine for 87 points in the second half. It was all Buckeyes in the opening minutes, though, as the Jackets scored only three baskets in the first seven minutes. OSU went on an 18-6 run over that span, finishing the run with three straight baskets in transition to take a 46-32 lead.
Tech had more success on the post, with Favors—who played just five minutes in the first half after two quick fouls—getting good position for points on the post. OSU, though, continued to strike quickly in transition and maintain their lead.
“Down two at the half, even with all the foul trouble, I felt like we were in pretty good shape…[but] they did a pretty good job in the second half of getting the transition game going,” Hewitt said.
The Buckeyes’ long-range shooting proved to be key. After hitting just two of 11 attempts from beyond the arc in the first half, OSU went six-for-10 on threes to close out the game. Diebler had four of the seven as he and Lighty combined for 28 second-half points, supplementing Turner’s offense with their own.
“[Evan is] going to draw so much attention, and that just leaves some easy shots for us,” Diebler said.
A Diebler three put OSU up 65-50 with just under five minutes to go, but while the game appeared to be out of reach, the Jackets began to rally. Defensively, Shumpert stepped up his pressure on Turner, particularly on inbound plays, and forced him into mistakes. On the other end, freshman guard Mfon Udofia hit a layup in transition, freshman guard-forward Brian Oliver hit back-to-back contested threes and Favors converted a three-point play as Tech put together an 11-0 run to close to within 65-61 with 1:47 left.
Tech was not yet looking to foul, but OSU managed to draw contact and hit their free throws to extend the lead to eight. With 25 seconds left the Jackets were within six at 72-66, but despite good defense on an inbound play, OSU managed to find Lighty downcourt, and the forward converted a three-point play to seal the Buckeyes’ victory.
The loss marked the end of a promising season for the Jackets, who struggled at times in the regular season but had a strong showing in the postseason.
“We were just inconsistent. At certain points we showed how great we can be,” said redshirt senior D’Andre Bell.
“When you get to the tournament, that’s obviously, that’s a major accomplishment,” Hewitt said. “These guys did a great job all season battling back from some really tough circumstances.”
With the end of the season, Tech heads into an offseason potentially filled with uncertainty. Bell and Peacock, respectively a strong defender and a top-notch reserve, have both exhausted their eligibility, and some of Tech’s players may be candidates to enter the NBA Draft. With a roster filled primarily by young players, though, the Jackets should return most of the roster and will look to build on the success of the 2009-2010 season.