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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For 13 minutes, the Ohio State basketball team looked as good as it has all season, racing out to a 21-point lead against a second-ranked and undefeated team. Scoring in a variety of ways and playing the lockdown defense that's supposed to be this team's strength, the Buckeyes gave fans a glimpse into what they can be when they're clicking on all cylinders.
For the remaining 27 minutes of the game, Ohio State bounced back and forth between looking like the team that it was in the first half, and the team that entered Sunday's matchup with Michigan 0-3 against ranked opponents. Despite walking away with a 56-53 win, it wouldn't come before the Buckeyes squandered their lead in the second half, and had to make multiple plays in the final minutes of the game to seal their victory.
How you view OSU's up and down outing against the Wolverines varies depending on your point of view. On the one hand, the Buckeyes finally reached their potential- albeit at the midpoint of the season- and did so against an undefeated team playing for the nation's No. 1 ranking. On the other, OSU showed that perhaps playing at its best isn't a sustainable style for a full 40 minutes, and as a result, the Buckeyes nearly suffered what could have been a backbreaking result given the lead that they built in the first half.
Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft said that at times, Sunday's win felt like a matter of maturation for the Buckeyes. But at others, it was apparent that some problems still persist on the this team.
"At times," Craft answered, when asked if the Buckeyes felt more like a veteran team on Sunday. "And I also I think we played as a young team that doesn't really have it figured out either. Not that we should have it figured out yet. It's still early. I think we have a good backbone to lean on."
The high point for Ohio State came in the first half, when it jumped out to a 29-8 lead in the game's first 14 minutes of action. A balanced effort consisting of 11 points from Deshaun Thomas, and seven a piece from Craft and Sam Thompson helped pace the Buckeyes' 51.9 percent shooting effort in the first half, where OSU converted nine Michigan turnovers into 16 points.
The Buckeyes, however, weren't able to maintain their momentum, allowing the Wolverines to close the half on a 14-5 run. Ohio State's 12-point lead at halftime seemed much more manageable for Michigan, who could have easily let the game get out of hand before intermission.
"I thought the way we started the game was as good as we've played defensively all year," Matta said. "We got off to a great start and kind of died down there at the end of the first half."
The Wolverines slowly chipped away at the Buckeyes' lead in the second half, shortening it to single-digits fewer than five minutes in, and eventually tying the game at 46 with six minutes remaining in the game. The collapse was one of epic proportions for a relatively young OSU squad, which consists of just one senior and is still trying to combat the losses of key players from a season ago in Jared Sullinger and William Buford.
Unlike previous losses to ranked teams in Duke and Kansas, the Buckeyes found the answers they were looking for, building back a six-point lead, and holding off a Wolverines' team that attempted a would-be game-winning shot with eight seconds remaining in the game. Asked whether or not Sunday felt like a coming of age game for the his team, Matta unknowingly matched Craft's answer by stating, "at times."
"We lost our composure there momentarily for a while," Matta said. "Fortunately they were able to pull through that because we had some plays that we probably shouldn't have made that led to easy buckets for them, but it felt like, especially on the defensive end, that we really came together when we had to."
Thomas said that the difference between the Buckeyes' win over Michigan and losses to the Blue Devils and Jayhawks came down to how they handled the unavoidable moments of adversity that come along with facing a ranked team.
"We showed toughness, and we had to show composure," Thomas said. "They hit some big shots and they had a couple of steals, but we showed our composure and we stayed together as a team. And we got some key rebounds at the end and that's what it's all about. Get those stops, get key rebounds, and it's over."
In a way, Sunday's win was a coach's dream for Matta. Obviously it never hurts to hand a rival its first loss and add a win over the nation's second-ranked team to your resume, but with both the good and bad that the Buckeyes showed on Sunday, the OSU coach now knows what his team is capable of on both ends of the spectrum heading into the second half of the season.
"We beat a great basketball team. You look at it and you say 'great win,' but I think this game signifies that we're halfway through our season," Matta said. "You still got a long way to go."
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