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Despite football disappointments, Ohio State’s worst heart breaker came on the hardwood

Two difficult losses in the early 60s derailed a burgeoning Buckeye dynasty.

Purdue v Ohio State
John Havlicek pulls down rebound
Photo by Ohio State/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

If, when you close your eyes, you still see Chris Olave breaking off his route in the end zone, see the imagined touchdown picked off by Clemson, you know what I mean by “heart breaker.” Maybe we didn’t expect to win that game anyway. There were lots of things going wrong — the targeting call, a fumble in the end zone, a fumble for a TD called back, settling for field goals early on — and the Buckeyes were 0 for whatever against Clemson at that point.

Yet... that Ohio State team was really, really good. It was a heart breaker that even the following year’s win over Dabo Swinney, Trevor Lawrence, et al., couldn’t erase. But, for a heart breaker, what about the national championship men’s basketball game on March 25, 1961?

The previous season, 1959-60, the Buckeyes won their only national basketball championship (runners up four times!). Well before freshman eligibility, Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell (and, yes, the reserve Bobby Knight), were all sophomores. That team finished 25-3, 13-1 in the Big Ten, and won their first three NCAA tournament games by 19, 17, 22 before dominating Cal in the championship game by 20. For 1960-61, four starters were back. Hopes were astronomical.

Ohio Buckeyes Basketball Team Celebrating Victory
Nowell, Lucas, and Gary Gearhart celebrate championship with coach Taylor

The season went much as expected. Lucas averaged 24.9 points per game on the season to go along with a whopping 17.4 rebounds per outing. Havlicek averaged 14.5 and 8.7, while senior Larry Siegfried contributed 15.2 points per game. The team was loaded, but not particularly deep.

As the Bucks charged toward another championship, there were a few tough games along the way, but not many. In late December, Ohio State beat seventh-ranked St. John’s in Madison Square Garden by five and two nights later squeaked by No. 3 St. Bonaventure by two.

Only two conference games were tight, as the Buckeyes edged ninth-ranked Iowa in Iowa City by a single point and beat Indiana in Bloomington by four. Heading into the Tournament, the Big Ten champs were 23-0 and everyone’s favorite for back-to-back titles.

However, OSU struggled in its first game, escaping Louisville 56-55. But then they beat Kentucky 87-74 and St. Joseph’s by 26 to return to the championship game.

Time for the heartbreak to begin.

In those days of old, the game determining third and fourth place preceded the finals. The Buckeyes were suited up and waiting for the St. Joseph’s-Utah game to end. The game, however, seemed never to finish, as it went on and on, extending to four overtimes, St. Joe’s finally pulling it out, 127-120.

Meanwhile, tension mounted in the Buckeyes’ locker room. They were defending national champions, they were riding a 32-game winning streak, they had several of the sport’s best collegiate players, they were heavily favored. The pressure was on them, not on a good but seemingly outmanned University of Cincinnati squad, whose star player Oscar Robertson had graduated the previous spring.

Ohio State gained an early lead, but couldn’t break away as the team was accustomed to do. The Bearcats, under first-year coach Ed Jucker, gained confidence with each passing minute, as the game stayed close.

Cincinnati’s Bob Wiesenhahn faced the daunting task of covering Havlicek, whose motor never stopped, who out-hustled every opponent. But on that night in Kansas City, Wiesenhahn stopped Havlicek nearly cold, essentially keeping the ball out of his hands. Lucas would score 27 points and pull down 12 rebounds in that championship game, but Havlicek was held to just four points, taking only five shots from the field, making only one and a couple of free throws.

The Buckeyes had two players in double figures (Lucas and Siegfried); the Bearcats had four, with fifth starter Paul Hogue collecting nine. Knight laid in a basket to tie the score at 61 as regulation ended, but the extra period was all Bearcats, who outscored the Bucks 9-4. Final score: Cincinnati 70, Ohio State 65 in OT.

But there’s always next year. Right? Right. In the 1962 NCAA championships, Cincinnati, behind center Paul Hogue, beat the Bucks in the national finals again, this time 71-59. The 1961-62 season ended with OSU 26-2, 13-1 in the Big Ten. The season was over, and so was the Lucas-Havlicek era, probably the best run in Ohio State basketball history.

Losing that second time to Cincinnati was just a bitter chaser, following the 1961 loss; sort of the way watching Joe Burrow raise the trophy and light his stogie capped the lingering disappointment of the semifinal loss to Clemson nearly 58 years later.