After falling in double-overtime in last year’s semifinals of The Basketball Tournament, this year’s incarnation of Team Scarlet & Gray seems intent on improving upon their 2017 finish, as they move into the Super 16 with a hard-fought, 82-73 win on Sunday over the predominantly Texas Tech alumni team, the No. 9 Matadors. In front of a pro-Ohio State crowd at Capital University, the S&G squad overcame a deficit and ended the game in possibly the most exciting way imaginable to move one step closer to claiming the $2 million, winner-take-all prize.
David Lighty opened the scoring with a corner-three, after an Aaron Craft steal. Early on, the Matadors looked to get physical with S&G, a fact that would impact the game throughout. After a couple of fouls, John Roberson got a steal from Craft, which led to a three-on-one layup for J.J. Avila. Following an Avila triple and a fast-break layup (off of another Craft turnover) for Karl Cochran, S&G head coach Scoonie Penn called timeout with the de facto home team trailing 10-3 following an early flurry by the Matadors.
Out of the timeout, Craft zipped through the lane and found Jared Sullinger in the corner, who showed his improved shooting touch to hit a three-pointer. On the subsequent possession, William Buford connected on the third S&G triple from the same spot, but Avila made another three of his own to keep the Matadors up 15-9.
The practically three-pointer-only offense of the Scarlet & Gray continued as Northern Illinois alum Leon Rodgers hit his first attempt from the floor to get the former Buckeyes within two. However, at the end of the first quarter, the Matadors led Scarlet & Gray, 22-18.
Through the early minutes of the second quarter, the Matadors continued to blister the nets hitting on 2⁄3 of their shots to take a 29-20 lead. After another timeout, Penn had his team focus on taking the ball inside, resulting in three consecutive possessions where Sullinger and Rodgers combined for six made free throws, cutting the score to 31-26 in favor of the Matadors.
For most of the first half, the Bexley crowd was in shock as the Big Ten’s all-time leading three-point shooter Jon Diebler was ice cold. The scoring machine was 0 for his first four— including three attempts from downtown— and missed his first of two from the charity stripe. However, he would find his spots.
After a block on the defensive end by Lighty, Diebler couldn’t maintain a handle on the Sullinger outlet, but he stuck with the play and found Lighty streaking for the hoop and the harm that got S&G within one at 31-30.
After being fouled on what would have been an incredible spinning assist, Craft hit a pair of free throws to give the former Buckeyes a 34-33 lead, their first since the game’s opening basket.
Now down 37-34, Sullinger went to the floor unsuccessfully attempting to corral a loose ball. As he stood up, with Quincy Diggs standing over him, Sullinger gave the defender a shoulder. In response, Diggs retaliated with a pointed push to Sully’s neck. The altercation resulted in a technical foul on Sullinger, and Diggs was hit with a flagrant 2, resulting in his ejection. This would seemingly serve as the motivation that the Scarlet & Gray needed to get going on all cylinders.
Diebler and John Roberson exchanged pairs of free throws following the dead-ball fouls, and Craft hit a jumper to close out the half, pulling Scarlet & Gray within a single point, 39-38.
In the first two quarters, the Matadors hit 14 of their 26 attempts (53.8%), while the Scarlet and Gray were only 11-for-34 (32.4%). The Matadors were also aided by the fact that they went 5-7 (71.4%) from beyond the arc, while the former Buckeyes were just 4-13 (30.8%).
The Matadors had two players in double figures— Avila (13) and Roberson (10). Sullinger led the S&G with nine, while Craft and Lighty each had eight.
Early in the third quarter, the Scarlet & Gray took the lead on a beautiful entry pass from Buford to Sullinger. Then on the next possession, Lighty found Buford for a three to give the “home” team a 45-41 lead.
The action was not as crisp for S&G on Sunday as it was in their opening round game against the West Virginia Wildcats on Saturday, but their talent spelled the difference in the comeback. Sullinger hit three straight buckets for the Scarlet & Gray, to put them up 51-46; Lighty assisted on two of those baskets.
With 3:14 left in the third quarter, Diebler finally connected from the floor, hitting a three from the left side of the arc. A few possessions later, Craft found Diebler from deep, giving S&G the 60-54 lead.
However, the Matadors came roaring back to close out the quarter. After a Craft turnover with 00:07 in the period, Karl Cochran hit a deep three-pointer to give the ninth-seed the 61-60 advantage heading into the fourth.
In the final period, Sullinger continued to flex his considerable muscle and talent, collecting eight points in the first three minutes. Capped by a Craft layup, S&G raced out to a 9-1 run to retake the lead at 69-62. Sully went absolutely beast mode in the game recording game-highs in both points (28) and rebounds (20).
Though Sullinger has been one of the best players on the court in the first two rounds of TBT 2018, it is safe to say that he will not have the same impact next weekend, as he will be skipping the games on Friday and Sunday (should they advance) in Atlanta to get married.
However, the former Buckeye big man will be replaced by an even bigger former Buckeye big man as current student assistant on Chris Holtmann’s coaching staff Greg Oden will suit up to fill in for Sully.
In an effort to increase the defensive intensity in the final minutes, Penn inserted former East Tennessee guard Courtney Pigram. His presence, coupled with Craft’s, led to a number of easy opportunities for S&G. His few minutes on the floor were noticed and appreciated by the Capital crowd.
With 3:57 remaining, the Elam Ending target score was set at 82 with S&G up 75-70. The unusual end-of-game rules eliminate the obnoxious fouling in the closing minutes that plagues most basketball games these days. If you are unfamiliar with how it works:
“Under the rule, at the first dead ball after the four minute mark in the fourth quarter, the game clock shuts off. A Target Score is set by adding seven to the leading team’s score. The first team to reach the Target Score wins.” More on TBT using the Elam Ending.
Following a Sullinger miss, Craft dished to Diebler who hit from way downtown to increase the advantage to 78-70, but the game ended on the rare walk-off, alley-oop from Buford to Lighty to give the Scarlet & Gray the 82 points they needed to win, and move one step closer to $2 million.
In addition to Sullinger’s 28, Lighty finished with 15, and Diebler and Craft both had 12. Chris Cokley led the charge for the Matadors, finishing with 20. Cochran ended with 17, while Avila and Roberson had 13 apiece.
On Friday, July 27 at 9:00 p.m. EDT, Team Scarlet & Gray will face the winner of No. 4 Big X and No. 12 Primetime Players in Atlanta, Ga. Big X is made up of former Big Ten players, including recent addition to the Ohio State coaching staff Andrew Dakich. Jae’Sean Tate broke a bone in his hand, and is therefore unable to participate. Kam Williams was also slated to be on the roster, but is not playing. Primetime Players and Big X will tip off on Sunday at 4:00 p.m.