LOS ANGELES - The Buckeyes have been playing with fire during the NCAA Tournament and on Saturday evening they finally got burned after spotting the No. 9 seeded Wichita State Shockers a 20-point lead and despite a furious comeback saw their season come to an abrupt end with a 70-66 loss in the West Regional Final.
The Buckeyes started the first half on a frigid pace, shooting 24-percent from the field (8/33 from the field) and with Deshaun Thomas leading the way with nine points. The Shockers showed the look of a Big Ten-style defense with five early blocks and forcing the Buckeyes to think twice about attacking the rim, a move that has been much of the backbone of the previous 11-straight wins by the Buckeyes.
"They remind me of a Michigan State a little bit in the Big Ten," Thomas said. "They had shot blockers and they packed it in and they dared us to shoot the three. They did play really well as a team defense."
Ohio State had been shooting 50-percent from distance in the first three games of the tournament, Saturday evening saw them shoot a dismal 5-25.
Thomas led the way with 23 points, LaQuinton Ross had 19 points, 15 in the second half. Aaron Craft was not able to replicate his numbers from previous games in the tournament with nine points on 2-12 shooting, 2-7 from beyond the arc and 3-5 shooting from the line.
Wichita State was led by 14 points from Malcolm Armstead, 12 points from both Cleanthony Early and bench player Fred Van Vleet.
The Buckeyes trailed by 13 at the half and would have been down by more if WSU would have had a better shooting game as a team themselves, they shot 35-percent in the first half. But the Buckeyes felt that they were getting the looks that they wanted but just were not having the shots go down and that is usually a recipe for disaster when you are down to the final eight teams in the NCAA Tournament.
"Our first half was probably the worst that I have seen us play in a long time," Lenzelle Smith, Jr. said. "Unfortunately for us, that result is what I think got us beat today."
Senior Evan Ravenel, playing in his final game for the Buckeyes, agreed that Wichita State's defensive intensity may have gotten in their heads a little bit early and led to some issues.
"We were getting the looks that we wanted but we couldn't knock them down," Ravenel said. "Their defense is good, don't get me wrong, but our offense couldn't knock down the shots when we got them. They blocked a couple of shots and that may have effected some guys' psyche a little bit but you just have to keep rolling and not worry about it."
The 13-point deficit turned to a 20-point deficit by the 14:07 mark of the 2nd half and it appeared that all hope was lost. But everyone knew that the Buckeyes had one last run left in them and it was almost enough to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.
"With this team, when we don't shoot the ball well, we're not real productive," Thad Matta said.
Ross scored 10 points as the Buckeyes cut the lead from 20 down to three at the 2:48 mark as the Ohio State defense started to stiffen and the Buckeyes once again attacked the rim and had their only success from beyond the arc for all intents and purposes. A pair of free throws by Shannon Scott saw the Buckeyes trailing 62-59 and the roof was nearly ready to come off of the Staples Center as Ohio State fans finally had something to cheer about.
Ohio State's defense betrayed them on the following possession however and Tekele Cotton hit a big three pointer from the corner to put WSU back up by six. Ohio State roared back and Thomas drove the lane to cut the lead back to four and it appeared that Ohio State might still have a couple of tricks left for the final 2:09 of the game.
But everyone was worried about how Ohio State would fare on the boards and despite ending the game only minus-three in rebounding the Shockers pulled down a big offensive board off of a missed shot by Van Vleet and fed it back to the guard and a chance for Wichita State to run more clock. Van Vleet would get a second look with a minute left and would drain it to extend the lead to six and the game was all but decided at that point.
"We needed to get consecutive stops, when we started doing that then things started rolling for us," Craft said. "It was just too little, too late."
Saturday's game could be the last time that Thomas puts on an Ohio State uniform but for now he is not ready to talk about his future and will take time to meet with Thad Matta and his family before making any declaration.
"I'm just going to go home, enjoy my family, get back in the gym, and have to think about this," Thomas said. "This is a great group of guys I have around me and (a) great coaching staff. So I'm going to enjoy my time off and not going to remember this loss and get back in the gym and get better."
Despite the obvious disappointment of a tough loss on the biggest of stages it was a tremendous run by a team that once sat at 18-7 and appeared to be in a perilous position in the Big Ten race.
"I've said this a lot about this team," Matta said. "I couldn't be prouder of it."