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Last updated: 03/18/2013 3:16 AM

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Men's Basketball
Buckeyes Savor Championship Before Moving On
As Eyes Turn to NCAA Tournament, Buckeyes Should Celebrate This One First
By Brandon Castel

CHICAGO — Thad Matta could only smile as he twirled the tattered hunk of twine around his head. It felt good in his hand. Familiar, but never better.

For the third time in four years, his Buckeyes were champions of the Big Ten Tournament, as they knocked of Wisconsin, 50-43, on Sunday.

It wasn’t pretty. Ohio State struggled through a 1-for-16 shooting night from behind the arc and the Buckeyes had only eight assists on 20 made baskets. Star forward Deshaun Thomas went 6-of-19 from the floor for the second night in a row, and the two teams combined for a total of six fast-break points.

This was Big Ten basketball in every sense of the word. It was a rugged, back-and-forth battle with the outcome hinging on just about every play down the stretch. It was OSU sophomore LaQuinton Ross, the most unlikely of suspects, who made the two biggest baskets of the game.

His first one gave Ohio State a 45-41 lead with 4:31 to play and his second put the Buckeyes on top by six with 2:41 to play. They were easily the two biggest plays of his young career, but they helped Matta and the Buckeyes – a team that looked ready for its last rights just a month ago – to an improbable championship in college basketball’s best conference.
 
“As I told the team afterwards, I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a basketball team,” Matta said Sunday.

“In terms of you look at this tournament and you look at this league, and we've gone 21 straight games. To be standing atop of it today, last college basketball game of the regular season, incredible.”

The Buckeyes didn’t have to play No. 1-seed Indiana or No. 5-seed Michigan, but they did knock off a Wisconsin team that bounced both of them from the tournament. They also bested a Michigan State squad that beat Ohio State in the tournament final last season.

“I thought both teams were exhausted out there today,” Matta said.

“We were challenging our guys every timeout to tell them you've got one more gear, you've got one more gear, and fortunately for us, we made some big plays and finally knocked a couple shots down.”

It was the fourth tournament title in nine years for Matta, who is now 19-5 in Big Ten Tournament games since he took over at Ohio State back in 2004. He is 30-6 in conference tournaments in his career, but like most coaches, Matta is primarily judged by what he does in the next one.

Before Matta can even climb down the ladder with his piece of the net, most people have already moved on to the real March Madness. They are talking about matchups and seedings and trendy Final Four picks, which Ohio State happens to be at the moment.

No one can blame them.

The NCAA’s win-or-go-home basketball tournament is one of the most exhilarating thrill rides in all of sports. It is three weeks of high-octane, never-say-day action that will take every twist and turn imaginable before we finally crown a national champion on April 8 in Atlanta.

It becomes a smorgasbord of NCAA Tournament madness, starting with Sunday night’s Selection Show, and much of what was accomplished over these four days in Chicago can be lost.

“It’s funny, playing on this day it kind of loses its luster with the general public,” Matta acknowledged after the game.

“But it will not lose its luster with me. I’m going to go home and enjoy this.”

Ohio State’s head coach isn’t the only one who appreciates just how far this team has come in the last 30 days since that frightful 22-point beatdown at the hands of the Badgers.

Veteran players like Lenzelle Smith Jr. have been through this before. While Smith and his fellow juniors are 8-1 in the conference tournament, he understands just how difficult it can be to win a tournament like this in a conference as deep and talented as the Big Ten.

“I feel like as an older guy, you really don’t get these moments,” he said in the locker room while clutching the Big Ten Tournament trophy against his chest.

“Next year is going to be my last year, so I might be in here crying instead of holding this thing. I’m just trying to cherish every moment I get with these, being champions of the Big Ten and the best conference in the country.”

There are seven teams from the conference in this year’s field of 68, and Iowa earned a 3-seed in the postseason NIT Tournament. The Buckeyes are one of five teams from the Big Ten to earn a 5-seed or higher in this year’s NCAA Tournament, and they could face a rematch with Wisconsin – the 5-seed in the West – if they reach the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles next week. 

They have to get past Iona first.

“Iona is ‘now’ but for sure after the game you're thinking about today and the journey we've gone through in the regular season, no doubt about it,” OSU assistant Chris Jent added.

“And where we are with the state of our team. Whatever seed we are, the state of our team is what's going to determine our future.”

For now, it’s all right to stay in the present. Even if it’s only for a moment.

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