After getting down by 20 more than midway through the second half, all seemed lost for Ohio State. In spite of a great season that included a somewhat surprising Big Ten Tournament title and dramatic buzzer beating wins over both Iowa State and Arizona, the same Ohio State team that was blown out by Wisconsin seemed to have returned at the most inopportune time imaginable. An inspired late 25-9 run gave Ohio State a chance down the stretch, but the early deficit was just too much for the Buckeyes to overcome.
Echoing the one dimensional nature of the shakiest stretches of the season, Deshaun Thomas was for long periods the lone viable offensive option for the Buckeyes, finishing with 21 points and 5 rebounds. The Arizona game hero, LaQuinton Ross, came on strong late to record his third straight game with 17+ (19 to go with 5 boards of his own). Malcolm Armstead seemed to be able to drive at will against Ohio State's ordinarily stout defense and lead the way for Wichita State with 14 points. Cleanthony Early had himself an evening as well despite missing a long stretch with what appeared to be a nasty ankle injury. He later returned and finished the contest with 12 points and 7 rebounds. Fred VanVleet was also a thorn in the Buckeyes' side early and often, scoring 12, dishing out a pair of assists, pulling down 3 boards, and helping to force Aaron Craft into one of his worst defensive games of the season.
A start worthy of a Big Ten conference game involving just about any team versus Wisconsin was the story of this one in the early going. The Buckeyes started things off shooting 0-for-4 from the field, while the Shockers were 0-2 in their own right. Wichita State would get on the board first, taking a 2-0 lead a little over two minutes into things.
Ohio State's cold streak would continue with the Buckeyes jacking up brick after brick with their miss count running to 0-for-7. Deshaun Thomas was responsible for four of them, and several looks by the team as a whole were either ill-advised and/or not even close. By the time the Buckeyes made their first basket of the night, the team was 1-for-8. Wichita State was only 2-for-5, but it was more than enough to secure them the early lead.
After getting their first (and ultimately only) advantage of the night at 8-7 (and subsequently 9-7 after Deshaun Thomas converted the charity stripe portion of an and-one), an Early 3 pointer would give Wichita State a lead they'd never again relinquish. WSU went on a 6-0 run that Ohio State would answer with a one man spectacular from LaQuinton Ross as he scored on one end, raced down the court, and swatted a shot attempt at the other, but the Shockers remained in control.
Cleanthony Early led the way in the early goings for the Shockers, shooting 3-for-5 (including 2-of-4 from 3) while putting up 8 early. On the other hand, it continued to be a tough going offensively for the Buckeyes. Despite having had success running a small lineup going back to the Northwestern game (the game before their previous loss all the way back on February 17), the Bucks had no choice with their troubles on the glass than to go with a bigger lineup that included Thomas, Ross, and Amir Williams.
The change in personnel plus a certain body language present throughout not just the Ohio State starters but the bench players as well culminated in an offense that would never get jump started until it was essentially too late. Though the Buckeyes as a team continued to struggle shooting the ball, Ross showed flashes of life (though it wasn't reflecting on the scoreboard), and the Buckeyes were able to hover not too far behind with the margin floating around 17-15.
A pair of three's would then help the Shockers go on a 10-0 run and the Bucks had made but 6-of-23 field goals while Wichita State had downed 9-of-20. Suddenly the second place team in the Missouri Valley Conference were up 25-16 with four minutes to play in the first half.
In what perhaps was also indicative of the way things were going, often scape goat/inconsistent big man Amir Williams was playing the best ball on the court for the Bucks, having recorded four first half blocks, pulled down a couple boards, and done next to nothing offensively otherwise. When the margin escalated to 27-16, Ohio State faced their largest deficit of the entire NCAA Tournament.
A poor series of fouls down the stretch (one of which came on just absolutely indefensible officiating) haunted the Buckeyes, and that near double digit deficit swelled to 35-22. WSU had closed things on a 20-7 run and the Buckeyes looked completely lost on both ends.
Things would get worse before they would get better in the second half. The 13-point half time margin would continue to grow as Ohio State missed 8-straight 3-point field goals. Wichita State had been a dominant rebounding team all season, and they absolutely had their way over the likes of Williams, departing senior Evan Ravenel, and Thomas.
With 12:27 to play, Ohio State found themselves facing a 51-31 deficit. While losses of this magnitude seem to transpire in March roughly once every decade, going into this one, it didn't seem that without a total off night there'd be any way this Buckeye team would find themselves on the receiving end of history's cruel joke. And yet everything seemed to fall into place for WSU.
But not without Ohio State getting one last word in edgewise first. LaQuinton Ross would being to assert himself as the de-facto "Deshaun Thomas of the second half" and a few careless (e.g. fearful) turnovers on the part of the Shockers would help to key off the Buckeyes on a 7-0 run. OSU would continue to add to it, helped in part by being in the double bonus so relatively early.
Thomas and Ross would keep trading opportunities and with Craft adding some free throws in the process, suddenly that 20 digit lead was down to 60-52 with just under four minutes to play. A huge Ross make would get the Buckeyes down to 5 with OSU's come from behind run peaking at 23-6.
Tekele Cotton would hit a huge 3 to get the lead back up to 65-59 for Wichita State, and though Deshaun Thomas would answer with a make, four would be as close as Ohio State would ever be able to get again. The Buckeyes stopped being able to get the offense they'd benefitted from during an almost historic comeback, and the Shockers continued to both rebound their misses and hit their free throws when needed. The Bucks would get the margin superficially closer than it was, but it was Wichita State's night. George Mason-2006 had company.
The immediate question on many fans' mind would be whether the three game stretch put together by LaQuinton Ross would end his time as a Buckeye. He quickly told all the media in the postgame locker room that would listen that he's planning on coming back and he thinks next year's team (with or without Thomas) will be talented enough to make another run like this one.
While it seems likely that Deshaun Thomas is gone (particularly after his surprising decision to return for the 2012-2013 season), despite having a son born roughly this time last year, he returned to school because he wasn't considered a first rounder. While this isn't one of the strongest draft classes in recent memory, he's still unlikely to be chosen in the NBA's first round. He'd say immediately after the game that he was going to take his time and speak with his family but that it was "50-50" at this point whether or not he'd be back. He'll ultimately have until April 28th to make his decision.
This offseason will unfortunately be a long one for Ohio State, while Wichita State gets to keep their dream alive by heading to Atlanta and the Final Four next weekend. They'll face the winner of tomorrow's Duke/Louisville regional final Saturday night. All in all, the West Region proved to be the one to watch, but not for the reasons many thought at first. While Ohio State will likely never be a football school, slowly but surely, they're growing. And while it doesn't feel like it at the moment, this Big Ten Tournament title/Elite Eight run made for a great year, and one Buckeye faithful won't soon forget.
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