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Ohio State aims to fix free throw struggles in NCAA Tournament

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Senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. (32) takes a free throw during a game against Michigan March 15 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Michigan won, 72-69.
Credit: Shelby Lum / Photo editor

The whistle blows, the official bounces the ball and every eye in the arena is focused on a single player. Standing at the free throw line with the game on the line, even the simplest things can go wrong.

Players spend years perfecting the technique of the shot, just to be placed under the spotlight and wither.

In the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s contest against Michigan Saturday in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal, the pressure finally caught up to the Buckeyes.

“We knew it was going to bite us in the butt sooner or later, and unfortunately it happened today,” junior guard Shannon Scott said after the loss.

On the season, OSU (25-9, 12-9) shot 68.9 percent from the free throw line, 210th out of 351 teams in Division I.

But in Big Ten Tournament wins against Purdue and Nebraska, the Buckeyes’ struggles at the line weren’t enough to lose them the games.

OSU went a combined 12-14 from the charity stripe in the final two minutes of play against the Boilermakers and Cornhuskers, despite shooting less than 65 percent in each of the games.

Against the Wolverines though, the problems at the free throw line were exposed. Senior guard Aaron Craft missed two free throws with 2:27 remaining that would have put OSU in the lead, and junior forward LaQuinton Ross missed one of two with 44 seconds remaining.

One more point could have led to a less desperate situation for OSU, which would have only needed two points to tie instead of having to rely on a 3-pointer that slipped out of Craft’s hands right before the buzzer.

Senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said free throws are starting to become worrisome for OSU, but that the team managed to stay in the game was impressive.

“Free throws are obviously big and this is where you see how big they can become,” Smith Jr. said. “All-in-all, even with us missing free throws down the stretch, we still had a chance to win the game. We were one rebound away, they miss a free throw and get the ball back, that’s a dagger. In the end, that takes the momentum away from our team and it just turns everything in their favor. But we start making those free throws and we have a chance to ice the game and we wouldn’t even be in this situation.”

Craft said he wasn’t happy with his own performance down the stretch.

“I’m disappointed in myself, obviously,” Craft said. “Came down the stretch and didn’t make some free throws, missed a couple shots that our team needed us to make.”

Less than a week before, against Michigan State in Columbus, OSU struggled at the line again late, only hitting two of its eight attempts at the line in the final two minutes. But like the first two rounds of the Big Ten Tournament, OSU managed to squeak by with a win despite shooting poorly at the line.

Smith Jr. said the free throw shooting has turned into a consistent problem late in games, but if OSU can fix the problem, it will become a dangerous squad.

“We’re not making free throws down the stretch,” Smith Jr. said. “Those are things that we can correct and once we get (those) corrected, I’d be afraid of us. We’re definitely going to be a better team because of it. We take that with the type of fight this team has, and the effort we’re going to dig ourselves out of holes, I think that’ll be something good for us.”

The No. 6-seeded Buckeyes are scheduled to take on the Dayton Flyers (23-10, 10-6) Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y. in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Tipoff is set for 12:15 p.m.

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