Thad Matta had seen enough.
His Ohio State team started its Big Ten tournament quarterfinal game against Nebraska in a fog. The last straw was when All-Big Ten wing Deshaun Thomas lost his man and NU’s Brandon Ubel got a dunk out of it. Matta called timeout, words were exchanged and Thomas was sent to the bench.
Matta’s message (in effect): “This is not going to be easy.”
His Buckeyes heeded the message. Second-seeded Ohio State awoke from its early slumber and outscored 10th-seeded Nebraska 48-13 over a 23-minute stretch. The result was a 71-50 win Friday night at Chicago’s United Center.
“We got off to a slow start,” Matta said. “I thought once we focused in and got our minds where they needed to be, we were very effective, especially with the defense. In the second half, shooting 77 percent, we had a better pace to our offense, which was what we needed.
“Honestly, this was just a great team win for Ohio State.”
The Buckeyes (24-7) advance to Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinals for the seventh time in eight seasons. They will play No. 3 seed Michigan State (25-7), which rallied from a 13-point second half deficit to defeat No. 6 seed Iowa 59-56 in its quarterfinal game.
OSU found itself in early deficits of 9-4 and 15-6 at the hands of the Huskers (15-18) as the Buckeyes struggled against the zone. But the Buckeyes roared back and outscored NU 22-8 over the last 12-plus minutes of the first half. They then put the throttle down by outscoring the Huskers 26-5 to start the second half, going up 54-28 with 12 minutes left.
During that second half run, the Buckeyes hit 11 of 12 shots to start the half. That included three three-pointers in a row by backup wing LaQuinton Ross. The Buckeyes shot an amazing 77.3 percent (17 of 22) in the second half and a nifty 59.1 percent for the game (26 of 44).
Thomas came back from his early miscue to lead OSU with 19 points and nine rebounds. He spent four minutes on the bench as he regained his composure after he and Matta went at each other just a bit during the timeout.
“I took a bad shot early,” Thomas said. “I didn't run a play all the way through, and then I got scored on. But Coach grabbed me, took me, out and my teammates and my coaches said, ‘Just calm down, get your mind right and things going to come to you and just relax.’ ”
Thomas was asked what was going through his mind as he cooled his heels on the bench.
“I was just cheering on my teammates,” Thomas said. “Sam [Thompson] got an easy bucket to the lay-in and I was just thinking about getting my mind right, that's what I was thinking on the bench, and that's what I did, and cheering on my teammates.”
Chicago native Sam Thompson hit 8 of 9 shots (and was 3 of 4 on threes) to also have 19 points, a new career high. It was his first game ever at the United Center, where he said he had been to a number of Chicago Bulls games.
“I’d been to a lot of Bulls games here growing up,” Thompson said. “But I never played here. They used to have the (high school) city championship game here, but then they switched it a year before I got to high school. I always looked forward to playing here.
“I always wanted to play in the United Center. I’ve been coming here since I was 3 or 4 years old with my father. It was a great experience to play here. It was surreal. I felt good. I don’t know what it was, but I felt I had a step about me. I was able to make some plays today. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Matta added, “We drove him by Whitney Young High School today right by the gymnasium and everyone pointed to it for him. It was on the way. Sam has been a steady this season, and I've always said this, when he takes his shots, he can leave out of Ohio State as one of the greatest that ever played here.”
Ross added 11 points. Aaron Craft had seven points, eight assists and two steals. Shannon Scott also had seven points.
“After that first four minutes where they were kind of shooting any shot they wanted and knocking any shot down, we just went back to playing Ohio State defense and that's when we are at our best,” Craft said. “When we can keep guys in front us to make them make more decisions than they are used to and normal to, I think that's when guys tend to make poor decisions, kind of throw back passes and things like that, that always helps.”
Brandon Ubel led Nebraska with 16 points and seven rebounds, while Shavon Shields led Nebraska with 14 points. The Buckeyes had 10 steals and forced 15 NU turnovers.
“Congratulations to Ohio State,” said NU coach Tim Miles. “I thought we had a good start. Just couldn't get the clock to run fast enough to get out of that first half. But have to credit Ohio State. That defensive pressure made all the difference.”
Nebraska led 9-4 early after David Rivers found Ubel for a layup – the one that prompted Matta to call his team over for some inspirational words. Moments later Ray Gallegos splashed a three for and later hit 1 of 2 free throws for a 15-6 lead with 13:03 left in the half.
Craft joked about the early timeout.
“We are just trying to make sure that coach is into the game really,” Craft said. “We don't want him to be sleeping on the sidelines early, either, because we know if we can get him going, he's going to get us going. That's really worked out well for us.
“But no, it's on us. I think we have done a better job recently of getting ourselves ready to go and it's been a while since we've played in a new environment and things like that. But we don't have any more excuses.”
Matta was not in a joking mood, however. When Ubel scored, he jumped out of his seat like he had an ejector.
“I felt like we needed a timeout to say, ‘Hey, this is what I was talking about last night in the final meeting; it's what I talked about this morning after the film session, if you're not ready to go, you're going to get embarrassed and we were getting embarrassed out there.’
“It was just the little things that we weren't doing that was bothering me. We had 18 hours to prepare and these things were important and we didn't do them to start the game. Our body language wasn't good. Guys were complaining and you know, it just -- we're not good enough to play like that.”
Ross filled in ably until Thomas returned.
“They had gotten into a little confrontation and they sat DT down a little bit,” Ross said. “We came in and went on a run from there.”
The OSU defense tightened and held Nebraska without a field goal for 6-1/2 minutes.
Shannon Scott hit a three off a Craft assist and Craft then hit a three off a Thomas feed on the secondary break. Evan Ravenel then forced an NU turnover and Scott fed Craft for a layup to grab the lead at 16-15.
Thomas had a rebound basket and Lenzelle Smith Jr. had a one-hander as OSU went up 22-17. Amir Williams then had a steal, which led to Craft dishing to Smith for a layup and a 24-19 lead. Thomas was fouled on a three-point attempt with 12.9 seconds left. His three free throws helped stake OSU to a 28-23 halftime lead.
The Buckeyes wasted no time in grabbing control of the game. They did it through their defense as they held the Huskers to just two field goals in the first eight minutes of the second half.
It started with Thompson taking a pass from Smith and beating the Huskers back for a dunk. Thomas then hit a jumper in the lane, Craft went hard to the hoop for a layup and Smith hit Thompson with a perfect alley oop for a dunk. Thompson then splashed a three for a 39-23 lead with 10:01 left.
After Shields hit a jumper for Nebraska, Thomas got a layup and Ross hit his three threes in a row for the Buckeyes. The first one was from the right corner off a pass from Scott. Craft then fed him for two more as Ross made himself at home at the cavernous United Center.
“I was feeling it,” Ross said. “When I put that third one up, I knew it was going in. Those guys are two of the best passers in our conference. When there is a guy open, they’re going to find him.”
The run continued with a Scott steal for a layup and a Thomas dunk as OSU soared ahead 54-28 with 12:01 left.
“That's one of the things we talked about at halftime,” Matta said. “We felt like trying to start the second half, with as much as we have -- because we knew Nebraska, you look at from where they have started to where they were to end the season, [Nebraska head coach] Tim [Miles] has done a phenomenal job of bringing this team along.
“He made some changes, and we told our guys at halftime, they have got to come at you. You know, it's all on the line for them. Let's answer the call. And I thought the start of the second half was big for us.”
Nebraska scored 10 straight and got as close as 14 at 59-45 after a Talley basket with 5:24 left.
But the Buckeyes regrouped to put it away. Thompson had a jam on a give-and-go with Evan Ravenel, Ravenel had a breakaway dunk, Thomas hit a three off a Craft pass, Thompson splashed a three and Thompson drove for a jam and a 71-48 lead with 1:21 left.
* Thompson eclipsed his previous career high of 18 against UNC-Asheville in December.
* Ohio State’s bench outscored Nebraska 21-7.
You know, I thought our bench did a great job coming in and getting us ready and contributing,” Matta said. “Shannon [Scott] was good at the start; Q [LaQuinton Ross] came in, banged some shots there.”
* With 19 points, Thomas moved into 18th place in all-time in career scoring at OSU with 1,508 points. He moved past Troy Taylor (1,497 points) in this game. Next up is Evan Turner in 17th place with 1,517.
* The win makes Ohio State 24-11 all-time in the Big Ten tournament. That record includes all games played. (OSU had games from 1999-2002 vacated due to NCAA sanctions).
OSU is 17-5 in the tournament under Matta. He has the highest winning percentage (.773) of any coach in tournament history and is second on the all-time wins list in the event.
The Buckeyes have reached the semifinals for the 10th time in the tournament’s 16 years and for the seventh time in the last eight years under Matta.
* Matta’s teams are now 70-17 all-time in the month of March. That includes a 48-12 mark in nine years at OSU.
That record also includes a 28-6 all-time mark in conference tournaments, including six conference tournament titles in his first 12 years as a head coach.
* Coming into the game, Ohio State was 14th in RPI and was Nebraska, 98th. OSU is 3-5 against teams currently in the RPI top 25, 6-7 against teams in the top 50 and now 11-7 against teams in the top 100.
* Ohio State swept the regular season series with Nebraska, winning 70-44 at Lincoln on Jan. 2 and 63-56 on Feb. 2 in Columbus. OSU is 5-0 vs. Nebraska since the Huskers moved from the Big 12 to the Big Ten last year.
Ohio State improved to 9-2 all-time against Nebraska with eight straight wins in the series with the Huskers.
* Ohio State has won six straight since a Feb. 17 loss at Wisconsin.
* OSU is now 21-0 against unranked teams this season. Matta’s OSU teams are also 203-21 against unranked opponents. Over the last three years, OSU is 73-1 against unranked opponents with the lone loss at Illinois in January 2012 (79-74).
* Nebraska drops to 0-10 against ranked teams this year.
* Ohio State advances to Saturday’s second semifinal game against No. 3 seed Michigan State (25-7). That semifinal will be played Saturday at 4 p.m. and will be televised by CBS.
The Buckeyes and Spartans met in last year's Big Ten tournament championship game, won by MSU 68-64. The teams split their regular season meetings with MSU winning 59-56 on Jan. 19 in East Lansing and OSU prevailing 68-60 on Feb. 24 in Columbus.
“We have a big game tomorrow against whoever we play,” Craft said. “It's going to be a tough battle. We can't afford to not be ready to go at the beginning, otherwise, maybe we won't be able to come back.”
No. 1 seed Indiana and No. 4 seed Wisconsin advanced to the semis with wins earlier on Friday. The championship game is set for Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on CBS with the NCAA bracket show following at 6 p.m.
This marks just the second time in 16 years that the top four seeds in the Big Ten tournament made the semifinals after it also happened last year.
* Click here for the box score from OSU-Nebraska.
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