Huge Rally Keeps the Buckeyes Alive

Tennessee's Chris Lofton, left, and Wayne Chism react near the end of their NCAA South Region semifinal loss.
Tennessee's Chris Lofton, left, and Wayne Chism react near the end of their NCAA South Region semifinal loss. (By Eric Gay -- Associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

SAN ANTONIO, March 22 -- He was there when it mattered most, flying from nowhere to block the game-winning shot. Greg Oden watched much of the game from the bench, but with one swing of his condor-wing right arm he kept top-seeded Ohio State alive.

After a wild first half that saw Ohio State trail by 20 points, Oden blocked the driving layup of Ramar Smith at the end of regulation, leaping over a teammate to do so, to seal Ohio State's 85-84 victory over fifth-seeded Tennessee.

The Buckeyes, who trailed by 17 at the half, will play Memphis on Saturday afternoon.

Oden scored nine points, including some big free throws down the gut-churning stretch, but his block on Smith will be remembered.

Of course, it wouldn't have been necessary if the Buckeyes, for the second straight game, didn't wait to use their superior talent only when they absolutely needed it. Ohio State (33-3) needed Mike Conley's free throw with 6.5 seconds remaining to win the game, much like it needed Conley's overtime heroics to beat Xavier in the second round.

"It's hard not to think, 'Why don't we come out and play for the first 20 minutes like we did for those last 20?' " Conley said. "That would definitely get us out of the situation we were in tonight."

On Ohio State's final possession, Conley drove to the hoop and was fouled, then swished the first shot. He missed the second, but Oden, his best friend from high school, made sure it wouldn't matter on Smith's drive.

Oden almost wasn't around to make the block. The Volunteers hinged their strategy on driving to the hoop and pounding the ball inside, knowing the only way to beat the defensive maestro would be to get him in foul trouble.

It nearly worked. Oden picked up his first foul with 13 minutes 17 seconds left in the first half, innocently enough. His second came with 10:48 left in the first, when he scrambled to retrieve his own turnover. With two fouls, Ohio State Coach Thad Matta had to sit him down.

Matta reinserted Oden with 6:19 left in the half. One minute and five seconds later, he tried to swat a putback by Duke Crews. The officials called him for his third foul, turning the 7-foot Oden into the second-tallest bystander in the Alamodome. (Former San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson, who is 7-1, sat 10 rows behind the Ohio State bench.) Oden played nine minutes in the first half, and the game seemed eerily similar to the Buckeyes' near-loss to Xavier last week.

Tennessee (24-11) made 9 of 15 three-point attempts in the first half, built a 20-point lead at one point before taking a 49-32 advantage into intermission. Matta walked off the court like he was at a funeral. Bruce Pearl ambled to the locker room with his lips clenched, the look of a man trying not to crack a smile.

But the demeanors of the two coaches, and the play of their teams, changed dramatically after the break. Tennessee couldn't slow itself down after setting a torrid pace, continuing to gun three-pointers early in the shot clock.

"Their body language was like they already won the game," said Ron Lewis, who scored 25 for the Buckeyes to lead all scorers. "That was on our minds."

Ohio State, finally ramping up its tempo, mounted a furious, 12-2 run to open the second half. The Buckeyes trailed by seven within five minutes, an astonishing turnaround. They cut the lead to one with 11 minutes to play on an Oden dunk.

But on Tennessee's ensuing possession, officials called Oden for hooking a Volunteer trying to navigate around a screen, his fourth foul. After the crowd booed a replay of the call, Wayne Chism muscled in a basket.

Oden walked slowly to the bench. It didn't matter. Ohio State tied the score on Conley's free throw with 9:34 left. One minute later, two free throws by Matt Terwilliger gave Ohio State its first lead. Tennessee continued to bumble possessions, hoisting wild shots both early and late in the shot clock.

The Buckeyes finally took advantage, making the game half maddening, half magical.

"I'm proud of them," Matta said. "But I'm also half [ticked] off at them."

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