March 29, 2012
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The season was spiraling away, the players didn't seem to care and Thad Matta had had enough.
So, as he watched his team stumble lackadaisically through practice on the eve of a big game, the Ohio State coach snapped. Stop, day's over, head home, he told them.
Not so fast, coach.
Led by William Buford, the team's lone senior, the Buckeyes pushed back, decided to finish practice on their own.
"I didn't let us leave," Buford said Thursday. "I told them we need to stay here and keep practicing, that's all there was to do. There was no sense in going home. We needed to stay together and show coach that we really wanted to be here."
They sure did.
Sparked by that we'll-show-coach moment of solidarity and buoyed by a refresher-course team meeting, the Buckeyes have made an unexpected run into the Final Four.
Following a loss to Wisconsin the day after Matta's outburst, Ohio State (31-7) has won eight of nine games and is playing its best basketball at just the right time.
The young Buckeyes face Kansas in Saturday's Final Four in the Big Easy and have found the confidence that was missing during an ugly stretch in February that had Matta wondering if his team could even get past the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"There was a lot of finger-pointing going around. There was some adversity; we weren't playing as well as we thought we should be," point guard Aaron Craft said. "There were guys just not taking responsibility for their actions, and he tried to kick us out. I think we did a good job of fighting back. Since the last week of the season, it's been a better team mind-set, and we've dealt with adversity a lot better."
The Buckeyes opened the season with some decent expectations, thanks to Jared Sullinger's decision to return for his sophomore season. Still, they were young and inexperienced, with 11 underclassmen on the roster, leaving Matta unsure of where the team was headed.
Ohio State was a smooth-shifting machine early in the season, playing with poise and efficiency while getting scoring from Sullinger and Buford and steady play from Craft at the point.
Ohio State's only losses were on the road to Kansas - without Sullinger - Indiana and Illinois, and it had moved up to third in the rankings.
Then, the Buckeyes seemed to get discombobulated.
In position to take a two-game lead in the Big Ten with six left on Feb. 11, the Buckeyes labored in a 58-48 loss to Michigan State, shooting 26 percent while scoring 29 points below their average to see a 39-game home winning streak end.
The Buckeyes bounced back with a road win against Minnesota but followed with a 56-51 loss at Michigan and still seemed to be in a funk despite beating Illinois.
Facing a huge game against Wisconsin the next day, one that could determine the Big Ten championship, the Buckeyes should have been focused and ready for an intense practice on Feb. 25.
Instead, they labored through it, prompting their coach to blow his stack and tell them to go home.
It was a big risk with a crucial game the next day, but Matta couldn't sit around and watch his team fritter away what he thought could be a good season.
"We've always tried to set the stage of how we practice is how we play - at high speed, we don't stop. It takes guys a little longer to get the intensity and what we're trying to get," Matta said. "And it took this team took a little while to understand."
The Buckeyes stumbled after Matta's gamble, losing to Wisconsin 63-60 the next day. They rallied after that, though.
Sullinger, who had just eight points and six rebounds against Wisconsin, shook off his midseason funk and concentrated just on his game, not outside influences like officials or what people were saying about him.
Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State's second-leading scorer in the regular season, picked up his output in the NCAA tournament, leading the Buckeyes with 21.8 points per game while giving the Buckeyes' a tough, who-do-you-stop combination with Sullinger.
Overall, the Buckeyes played more as a team, regained some of their early-season swagger and found a way to deal with adversity when it comes up instead of backing down from it.
"Even though we lost the game the next day, maybe it opened their eyes to maybe what the coaches are telling us is true, that the way we play games is the way we practice," Matta said. "Unfortunately, we had to take a home loss for it, but maybe it helped us in the end."
An example of how far they had come came after the Buckeyes beat Loyola of Maryland to open the NCAA tournament.
Ohio State rolled to a 19-point victory, but it was chalked up to the Buckeyes being bigger, faster and stronger than Loyola, not because the team was playing well.
The players, fortified with their new sense of purpose, had that it-could-have-been-better feeling, too, so they decided to hold a team meeting before their next game against Gonzaga.
Gathered in a Pittsburgh hotel room, they talked about focus, not taking anything for granted, communicating better, playing more as a team instead of individuals - a players-led refresher course of many of the same things Matta stressed after his get-out-of-my-sight move.
The players' meeting only lasted 10 minutes or so, but, like their coach's practice toss, the message made it through.
The next day, Ohio State fought through Sullinger's early foul trouble for a 73-66 victory over Gonzaga, earning a trip to the East Regional in Boston.
Once there, the Buckeyes held their composure after blowing a 12-point lead against cross-state rival Cincinnati, then knocked off top-seeded Syracuse to reach the Final Four for the second time since 2007, when Greg Oden led them to the national title game.
"We knew we had a chance to do something special, so we just wanted to try to keep our guys together," Buford said of the meeting. "We let everybody know that we need each other and that we needed to keep uplifting each other and help each other out."
Their season once on the brink of collapse, the Buckeyes are two wins away from their first national championship in 52 years.