INDIANAPOLIS — With two all-Big Ten Defensive team members saddled to the bench with two fouls apiece in the first half, the Ohio State men’s basketball team answered questions about its perceived lack of depth.
The Buckeyes quieted critics as they pushed past Michigan, 68-61, Saturday, advancing to the Big Ten Tournament’s Championship game.
Playing in a physical game that featured a total of 33 fouls called and each team’s bench picking up warnings from the referees, OSU fifth-year senior forward David Lighty and freshman point guard Aaron Craft each picked up a pair of fouls, before watching the final 10 minutes of the first half from the bench.
With two of his rotation regulars sitting court side, OSU coach Thad Matta called on a pair of true freshmen in forward Deshaun Thomas and guard Jordan Sibert to fill their roles.
“You’re constantly trying to build your bench,” Matta said. “Those guys practice extremely hard every day.”
The Buckeye freshmen answered the call, as Thomas scored four points and pulled down three rebounds in the first half, and Sibert recorded a steal that led to a break away dunk, as OSU took a 31-27 lead into halftime.
“Our coaches always tell me, ‘Just be active, have active hands,'” Sibert said. “I was just able to get the steal, and once I saw the lane, I was just like, ‘I’m going to dunk this. I have no other choice.'”
Michigan freshman guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. pulled the Wolverines to within two, before the Buckeyes went on a 16-0 run to extend the Buckeyes’ lead to 18 with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
Michigan made a last ditch effort to make a comeback late in the second half, bringing the score to within four points on an Evan Smotrycz 3-point shot with less than a minute remaining in the game, but the Wolverines ran out of time after a pair of Lighty free throws closed out the game.
OSU senior guard Jon Diebler and junior guard William Buford led the Buckeyes in scoring in 16 points a piece. After getting into a skirmish with Michigan center Jordan Morgan heading into a timeout, Buford rattled off six straight points as a part of the Buckeyes’ 16-0 run.
“Don’t make Will Buford mad, ‘cause he’ll knock down shots,” said OSU freshman forward Jared Sullinger.
Saturday’s win was the Buckeyes’ third of the season against the Wolverines.
“Beating a team three times is tough,” said Diebler, who scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds. “The other team’s trying to pick up on what the other team’s doing, but I think for the most part we executed both offensively and defensively.”
With the win, the Buckeyes advance to their fifth Big Ten championship game in the past six years and look to defeat Penn State for the third time this season at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.
“You look and a guy like David Lighty, this going tomorrow is going to be is fourth Big Ten tournament championship game,” Matta said. “Will (Buford)’s three-for-three, Jon (Diebler)’s got three. I’m proud of these guys.”