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Physical play against bitter rival propels Buckeyes to Big Ten championship game

Andy Gottesman / Multimedia Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio State topped Michigan, 68-61, in a heated battle in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Saturday.

The afternoon involved a lot of activity from the referees that lead to foul trouble for OSU early. That trouble forced coach Thad Matta to extend his bench.

Regardless of who was on the court, the bad blood was evident between the two rivals and the Wolverines kept the game close throughout. A strong second half from a previously slumping OSU junior guard William Buford was needed to secure the victory.

Officials’ involvement

Officials Ted Valentine, Ed Hightower and Gene Steratore blew their whistles for a total of 33 fouls on the afternoon. Twenty were on the Wolverines.

“It seems like they were calling them a lot like they did (Friday) … they’re not really letting anything go inside and that benefits the big men,” said Dave Novak, father of Michigan guard Zack Novak.

Buckeye freshman forward Jared Sullinger shot just 10 free throws Saturday, down from the 18 he attempted in the OSU victory against Northwestern on Friday.

Besides the fouls, both teams’ benches were warned in the first half for their reactions to the officials judgment. Valentine once gestured inches from OSU fifth-year senior forward David Lighty and once touched Michigan guard Darius Morris on the chest after calling fouls on the players.

Dave attributed the extra activity of the official to the time of year.

“I really didn’t notice that,” he said. “As the season gets long, the stakes get higher.”

Matta said he was happy with how his players reacted to the whistles and kept their composure and kept their attention on the right things.

“(I was) telling our guys, let’s just keep doing what we are doing,” he said. “Our focus was on the right things.”

Though some focus might have been redirected to those in striped shirts, Keith Diebler, father of OSU senior guard Jon Diebler, kept his attention on the athletes.

“The only thing I’m going to say is officials don’t decide outcomes,” he said. “Other than that I am going to be quiet.”

Bench contributions

The aggressive officiating led Matta to call on his little-used bench. Freshman forward Deshaun Thomas and freshman guard Jordan Sibert received significant playing time after Lighty and freshman point guard Aaron Craft picked up two early fouls.

“When those two were out with foul trouble Jordan and Deshaun came in and played excellent for us,” Jon said. “We’re going to stick to our game plan regardless of who’s on the court.”

Thomas scored nine points and grabbed four rebounds while Sibert contributed two points on a transition dunk. The opportunity for the fast break came off the freshman’s own steal.

Sibert logged 11 minutes of game action, 10 of which came in the first half. It was an increase in workload for the guard who has appeared in only 23 of the Buckeyes’ 33 games.

“As I was walking in to sub-in I really didn’t know what I was going to do when I was out there and I looked at Dave and I looked at Jared and they just told me, be smart and play hard,” he said. “I was like, OK, that’s what I am going to do, and it worked well for me.”

Bad blood

The rivalry between OSU and Michigan was displayed throughout the afternoon as players from both teams seemed to be talking to one another often.

The tension escalated in the second half when Sullinger was fouled by freshman forward Jordan Morgan. While trying to untangle himself from Morgan, who had fallen to the ground, it appeared that he grabbed Sullinger’s leg.

“That was kind of dirty. He didn’t need to do that,” Buford said.

Buford responded to the action by getting in Morgan’s face, who then shoved Buford while they were walking side by side.

“I just wanted to let (Sullinger) know I had his back no matter what,” he said.

Diebler and Lighty were also talking to the Michigan huddle at the beginning of the timeout that followed the altercation.

“We all got each other’s back out there; we all feel we need to,” Buford said. “That’s like my little big brother.”

The team was playing the Wolverines for the third time this season. Lighty is familiar with the intensity in these games.

“It’s Ohio State and the ‘team up north.’ Once you say that, it’s automatically heated,” he said. “It’s just that much more added motivation.”

Buford’s second half

After shooting just 3-for-14 in the Buckeyes’ first game of the tournament against Northwestern, it seemed Buford’s struggles would continue against Michigan.

He was 2-of-5 in the first half and neglected to take some open looks. After changing his mentality at halftime, Buford scored eight points on 4-of-9 shooting after intermission.

“In the first half I felt I had looks; it just wasn’t falling,” he said. “Second half I was just trying to be more aggressive.”

Buford was also key on a 16-0 scoring run that helped the Buckeyes create some separation from the Wolverines. A portion of the run followed the two teams’ scuffle and Buford was partially motivated by his involvement in it, he said.

Buford had been playing well before the tournament, averaging nearly 18 points per game over the team’s last four contests of the regular season on 57 percent shooting. He did not bring the same shooting touch to his first postseason game.

“Yesterday I was just throwing it up there and not really shooting,” Buford said. “I just felt today I needed to take my time and shoot my shot.”

The Buckeyes look to take home the Big Ten Tournament championship title against Penn State at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

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