Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
LOS ANGELES – It only took an exceptionally bad basketball half to end an 11-game winning streak and Ohio State’s season.
With its dreams of returning to the Final Four left to fester in the Los Angeles sun, the No. 2-seeded Buckeyes watched their NCAA Tournament run collapse as Wichita State toppled them, 70-66, at the Staples Center Saturday evening.
The No. 9-seeded Shockers jumped OSU early, laying the foundation for a 20-point lead that would force coach Thad Matta’s squad to play from behind for nearly 34 of 40 minutes of play.
In a dizzyingly woeful outing, OSU shot 31 percent and, more miserably, connected on just 5 of 25 tries from 3-point range in its first loss since Feb. 17.
“I thought we had some pretty good looks – they just weren’t going down for us,” Matta said in a somber Buckeye locker room following the game.
“It’s been a great season for this basketball team. It never ends the way you want it to, but I love the fact of what this team was able to accomplish in terms of sitting at 18-7 (on Feb. 17) and finishing 29-8. They hit their stride at the right time.”
But against Wichita State, OSU finally stumbled.
Deshaun Thomas led the Buckeyes with 23 points but struggled mightily to do so.
The junior forward made just eight of 20 attempts in addition to missing all six of his shots from behind the arc.
Sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross added 19 points, but he too found a well-glued Wichita State defense to be problematic.
So did the rest of OSU.
“Those are shots you have to make – that we’ve been making in this tournament, that we’ve been making in the Big Ten. Guys had good looks,” Matta said.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t go down. And a lot of times that becomes contagious. A guy hits one, another guy hits one, things kind of pick for you. It just didn’t happen tonight.”
In a first-half performance worthy of elimination, the Buckeyes clanked and clunked their way to 24 percent shooting and found themselves down by as many as 13.
Namely, Thomas, a beacon of scoring consistency for OSU, found it difficult to connect on much of anything early.
The Big Ten’s leading scorer mustered nine points on 4 of 13 shooting and 0 for 5 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes.
“(It was) very frustrating, very, very frustrating,” Thomas said.
“And, you know, it’s just crazy.”
The recent development of scoring accomplices like Ross and junior guard Aaron Craft were missing, too.
The two combined for seven points on 2 of 11 shooting in the game’s first act.
Also nowhere to be found was the swagger that often comes with a team playing for a chance at venturing back to college basketball’s mecca.
On the boards, the Buckeyes (29-8) were outmuscled, 27-17, in the first.
Any attempt to puncture the Shockers’ interior defense, headed by senior forward Carl Hall, who finished with six blocks, was rendered futile.
Admittedly, OSU players have said they’re at their best when playing in transition.
But against Wichita State (30-8), such movement was non-existent in the first period as the Buckeyes failed to score a single point off fast breaks.
“The funny thing about it, I looked at the box scores, we didn’t have no fast break points,” Thomas said.
“You ain’t got no fast break points, you can’t (get them to turn the ball over) and you’re shooting 24 percent. It’s hard to win in the Elite 8.”
They went into the half down, 35-22.
Matta said his message in the locker room during intermission was simple.
“We talked about it at halftime, let’s just cut (the lead) under 10 in the first four minutes,” he said.
“We got off to a not-so-good start in the second half and it got kind of deep.”
Deep as in the worst deficit OSU had faced since its lost to Wisconsin in Madison more than a month earlier.
The shooting woes continued. So did the inability to attack the basket and – perhaps more importantly – defend its own.
Time and again, Wichita State gashed OSU’s interior defense for the type of layups you might see during shootaround before the game.
On the other end, Hall defended the rim and refused the advances of Craft, among others.
“They played Big Ten defense, that’s what you see in the Big Ten,” Matta said. “It’s a loaded box and what you have to do is be able to knock a couple shots down and get some points in transition. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do either today.”
Thomas said the Shockers’ defense reminded him of a particular conference foe.
“They packed it real well. They was physical. That was a physical team. They reminded me of a Michigan State a little bit in the Big Ten. They was physical, they had shot blockers. They packed it in, they dared us to shoot the 3,” he said.
For most of the contest, it worked. But Behind Ross and Thomas, though, the Buckeyes would rally and cut the hole to eight points with 3:55 to play.
“We was down like that against Michigan State in the first half, like 12 or 13 points. When we dug ourselves (in a hole), we came back. And we tried to do that this game,” Thomas said.
While the momentum continued and brought fans clad in scarlet and gray to their feet, it would ultimately come to a halt against a Shockers squad that remained posed down the stretch.
Sophomore forward Shannon Scott hit a pair of free throws to make it 62-59 with 2:49 remaining, but Wichita State sophomore guard Tekele Cotton answered with a gut-punch 3-pointer to again extend the Shockers’ lead.
After a layup by Thomas on the ensuing possession, Shockers freshman guard Fred VanVleet’s jumper would make it 67-61 with a minute to play.
While the Buckeyes heaved desperate shots in the game’s final 60 seconds, it was ultimately too little, too late against a Wichita State squad on the cusp of reaching its first Final Four since 1965.
In his last game, OSU senior forward Evan Ravenel said had his team put the pieces together Saturday, it might’ve been a different story.
“If we played a complete game of basketball today,” he said, “we would definitely would be going out to Atlanta.”
Instead, the Buckeyes will travel about 2,250 miles back to Columbus.