Buford Wills Buckeyes to Improbable B1G Title
By Brandon Castel
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The smile on William Buford’s face said it all.
Photo by Dan Harker
With the game tied in the finals seconds, and the Big Ten championship on the line in one of the most hostile college basket environments in the country, Buford finally came up big.
It didn’t matter that so many expected him to fail.
“I just came in with a different mindset,” the Toledo native said.
“During that last play, I wasn't going to miss.”
After watching Buford’s career unfold at Ohio State, there were so many reasons to think he would. He is closing in on a spot among the top-five all-time scorers in school history, but he may never hit a bigger shot than he did to beat Michigan State Sunday for a most improbable Big Ten title.
“We know people have questioned him in the past, but we know what he is,” said teammate Jared Sullinger.
“People don’t have to love William Buford, but we sure do. He came up big for us tonight.”
It started with a three-point play early in the second half.
The Buckeyes had cut Michigan State’s lead to six points on a free throw by Buford. On the next possession the 6-5 shooting guard pulled up for a long jumper from just inside the arc. The ball spun off Buford’s fingers like a work of art, a perfect jump shot that few players possess the way Buford does when he is “feeling it.”
The ball swished through the net as Buford held his follow-through in the air. He had been fouled on the shot by MSU point guard Keith Appling, and he promptly knocked down the free throw to make it a three-point game.
Just like that, Buford was off and running, and so were the Buckeyes. Suddenly the guy who had not made a big shot on the weekend for Ohio State in weeks couldn’t miss.
“Will was feeling it, and I knew it was going in as soon as it left his hand,” Sullinger said of Buford’s last shot, his seventh made basket of the half in just 10 attempts.
“I was so happy it went in and I was so happy it was Will. We celebrated at half court, and it was an awesome feeling to know that Will Buford can carry us like that.”
Had Buford opted to turn pro after last season, he might have been a higher pick in the NBA Draft than he will now.
Buford was coming off an incredible junior season at Ohio State, one in which he shot over 50 percent from behind the arc in 18 Big Ten Conference games during the regular season.
He scored 16 points in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal against Michigan and 18 in the championship game against Penn State, as the Buckeyes completed a sweep of the conference titles.
Buford also dropped 18 points in each of Ohio State’s first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, as the Buckeyes advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second-straight year. He was a combined 7-for-12 from behind the arc in those two games, but none of that would have been remembered.
Instead Buford’s ultimate Ohio State freeze-frame would have been the potential game-winning three he missed against Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. The shot, which caromed off front-iron, was the trough of a 2-for-16 night that would have been Buford’s “final moment” as a Buckeye.
Now he has a new “final moment,” at least for now.
“I’ve been waiting for this. I am so happy that is the final moment I’ll have in my final regular season game,” he said of his game-winning basket with one second on the clock.
“We have a lot to accomplish still and we understand that, but it feels great to come through for my team, especially like this.”
For one shining moment Sunday, Will was finally Will. At the least Will fans have been hoping for during this turbulent senior season.
“Everyone is saying Will can’t do this, Will can't do that, Will’s not having the same season, but Will’s still playing hard,” Sullinger said.
“He’s still playing smart and it was a big time shot. There’s nothing better than having Will hit that shot.”
Especially considering what was at stake.
This Ohio State team was supposed to contend for a national championship, not just the Big Ten. These Buckeyes were supposed to succeed where Evan Turner, David Lighty and Jon Diebler had failed over the past two seasons.
But things don’t always work out the way they are supposed to, especially in sports. If they did, Michigan State would have taken care of Indiana last week and closed the door on an outright Big Ten title. Or, at the very least, they would have put the Buckeyes away for good after taking a 15-point lead on their own home court, where they were a perfect 14-0 this season.
“We never thought Michigan State would let their guard down against Indiana and give us a chance to play for a title,” Sullinger said.
“It was 24-9, for us to come back in this basketball game is big time.”
It was big for the team, and it was huge for Buford, whose on-again, off-again shooting will likely decide Ohio State’s ultimate fate in the postseason.
“I owe it all to my teammates,” he said with a smile.
“My coaches and my teammates, they always kept confidence in me no matter what kind of game I had. I always kept confidence in myself, no matter if I had a down game or an up game.”
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