BUFFALO, N.Y. — Having their backs to the wall hasn’t been an unfamiliar feeling for Ohio State players this season. Not altogether uncomfortable, either.
They were eight points down to Notre Dame with less than a minute left and won. They were 17 points down with less than eight minutes to play at Michigan State and forced overtime. They were 18 points behind Nebraska with less than 14 minutes left in their Big Ten tournament game last week and won. They were 16 behind Michigan the next day and rallied to lead by three before losing.
“It’s not a good feeling,” guard Shannon Scott said. “But it is good knowing that we’ve had that situation before and we didn’t panic. We found a way to get back in the game and, in some games, win the game.”
And in other cases, lose.
Eight of the Buckeyes’ games this season, including five of their past six, have been decided by four points or less. They have won five, including three of their past four. No longer, however, do they have the luxury of losing any. It is NCAA tournament time. One more loss and they are done for the season.
Ohio State will play Dayton in a South Regional second-round game today, with the winner advancing to play the Syracuse-Western Michigan winner on Saturday for a spot in a regional semifinal next week in Memphis, Tenn.
“Last week, it was one and done” in the Big Ten tournament, senior Lenzelle Smith Jr. said, “ but you could make a mistake one time and you still had another game” because the Buckeyes knew they were in the NCAA tournament.
“Now all the marbles are on the line,” Smith said, “and if you make that mistake, you don’t have a chance to apologize. You’re going home and watching the rest of the teams march on. Nobody wants that.”
The tendency on the Buckeyes’ part to back themselves against the wall began the weekend before Christmas against Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden and resurfaced intermittently the rest of the season.
“Sometimes we come out and try to feel our way through the game early,” Smith said. “We turn the ball over? All right, we still have 39 minutes to get more possessions. We have to take care of that (now). Those possessions matter. That’s what we’re hammering now. Coach has been on us about every possession matters. We can’t have careless turnovers.”
After the Buckeyes dug themselves out of double-digit holes twice in as many days last week against Nebraska and Michigan in the Big Ten tournament, coach Thad Matta used it to try to create a mindset for the Buckeyes this week, Sam Thompson said: “Play like your backs are to the wall when it’s 0-0 as opposed to down 20.”
Matta has preached consistency of effort and execution with this team throughout a season of ups and downs. Their nine losses overall and eight during the Big Ten season are their most in five years.
“I’ve felt like with this team that we have to be as dialed in as we possibly can be. That 40 minutes of consistency is something that’s paramount for this group,” Matta said before OSU opened practice yesterday at the First Niagara Center.
“We’ve told them, you’re not going to be perfect, but win anyway. I think these guys have done a better job throughout the course of the season of playing through pressure, playing through mistakes, playing through other teams’ runs, and hopefully that will pay off for us.”