By Hans Hetrick
After a promising three game win streak and the seemingly complete restoration of Evan Turner, the Ohio State Buckeyes turned to stone in Morgantown Saturday against the West Virginia Mountaineers. Before Saturday, the Buckeyes looked destined to make a serious run at the Big Ten title, and the possibility of a deep run through March Madness grew with every Evan Turner explosion to the rim.
Turner’s time in street clothes was being spun as a blessing in disguise as the David Lighty’s, Jon Diebler’s and William Buford’s learned to assert themselves in his absence. In Turner’s third game back, he led the Bucks to a thrilling come-from-behind win in the enemy territory of Mackey Arena. Next on the list was a masterful win against a Wisconsin team that spanked the Buckeyes hard during Turner’s convalescence. Then, Turner and the boys dominated a solid Northwestern team in Columbus with remarkable ball movement and stout defense. After these three impressive performances, Buckeye fans couldn’t help but smile and maybe even dare to dream of a second Final Four in four years.
There was plenty of motivation for the Bucks going into the showdown in Morgantown. Revenge for last year’s 76-48 drubbing by the Mountaineers in Columbus. A shot at taking down a power team from the lean, mean Big East Conference, and earn precious brownie points with the NCAA tournament selection committee in the process. And who doesn’t revel in frustrating Coach Bob “Huggie Bear” Huggins into one of his cute little fire-faced screaming fits.
The Buckeyes had Huggie Bear fuming in the first half. The Mountaineers couldn’t get anything going against the Buckeyes’ 1-3-1 zone. And the Bucks’ half-court ball movement shredded West Virginia’s defense until it relinquished a quality shot.
Evan Turner was at his best, magically appearing under the rim for a rebound, breaking down the defense and distributing the ball to open shooters, and finishing drives with gymnastic balance. William Buford continued to emerge from his early season shooting slump, ending up with 22 points. The pieces for Thad Matta seemed to be falling into place as they cruised to a 40-28 halftime lead. All systems were go.
But in the second half, Ohio State’s wave would crest and fall harmlessly to the WVU Coliseum floor.
West Virginia trimmed Ohio State’s 12-point lead down to two within the first three minutes of the second half. Buford kept his team above water for a good eight minutes until West Virginia’s Darryl Bryant dropped a three-pointer for their first lead, 57-54 with 8:55 left. The Mountaineers stayed on top the rest of the game. Huggie Bear and the Mountaineers read Ohio State’s defense like a road map all half. Huggins’ team found their three-point touch early in the half. They then proceeded to dismantle Ohio State’s 1-3-1 zone with backdoor cuts and aggressive work on the offensive boards.
On the other side of the court, the Buckeyes could only squeeze off 25 points in the second half. Ohio State’s offensive incompetence stemmed from an uncharacteristic performance from Evan Turner (6-17 from the floor). Turner was held without a field goal in the second half and had only one assist. Coming out of halftime, Coach Huggins put 6-foot-9 Devin Ebanks on Turner, and it paid off. Turner found his way to the rim a few times but never without a foul, and his five misses out of nine attempts from the line down the stretch gave the Mountaineers no reason to stop hacking.
In the space of twenty minutes, old cantankerous Huggie Bear and his Mountaineers exposed some troublesome weaknesses in the Turner-led Buckeyes. First and foremost, Ebanks proved Turner can be guarded.
Second, although Buford showed promise, the Buckeyes didn’t make good on the theory that they became stronger in Turner’s time off. No one picked up the slack. No one proved the ability to create points while Turner was hounded by Ebanks.
Finally, Ohio State was murdered on the boards. Dallas Lauderdale is a massive presence inside, but he needs help. (This is why B.J. Mullens should have stayed in school, and his decision to grow pro last year was a dumb one). West Virginia proved quicker and more tenacious down low, and the Buckeyes must find a way to help Lauderdale inside. Hopefully, Matta can make the adjustments, and one member of the three-headed Buford, Lighty, Diebler monster can step up if another team stymies Evan Turner. Or maybe Evan Turner will put on a cape and will his team deep into March.