Oden struggles, but Buckeyes manage to move on
Posted: Saturday March 17, 2007 6:40PM; Updated: Sunday March 18, 2007 4:01AM
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Ohio State had just pulled off an improbable, heart-stopping overtime victory over cross-state underdog Xavier to advance to the Sweet 16, yet to listen to Greg Oden's morose tone as he reluctantly spoke with reporters afterward, you might have thought he was sitting in the losing locker room.
"My bad game," lamented the freshman superstar. "Tomorrow, I'm going to be working on my hook shot and my free throws."
It was one of those classic March Madness finishes that had been largely missing from the Tournament thus far. The No. 1 team in the country, down by as much as 11 in the last eight minutes, fought back from the brink of elimination to send the game to overtime on Ron Lewis' dramatic 24-footer. Freshman guard Mike Conley Jr. morphed into a one-man wrecking crew in the extra period.
And when it got to the best part, Oden, the Buckeyes' 7-foot phenom, was a spectator like the rest of us.
In fending off the Musketeers 78-71 here Saturday, Thad Matta's team not only showed it can survive without its acclaimed freshman center, it can, when needed, actually win in spite of him.
Sure, the stat book shows Oden finishing with a respectable 14 points and 12 rebounds. If you watched the game, however, you saw a trio of undersized Xavier defenders hound him into one missed shot after another. You saw one of those Musketeer "bigs," 6-6 Justin Cage, drive right around him. You saw Oden spend much of crunch time on the bench after picking up his fourth foul while elbowing 6-8 counterpart Brandon Cole in a futile attempt to gain position. You saw him miss the front end of a one-on-one with less than a minute left and his team down 61-58. And ultimately, you saw him foul out with 9.3 seconds left on a bizarre, controversial play in which he appeared to almost hurl Cage to the ground like a WWE wrestler.
Oden was fortunate the officials did not see fit to call a fatal intentional foul on the play, though the man on the other end, Cage, certainly felt one was warranted. He was also fortunate Cage missed the second of his ensuing free throws, preventing Xavier from gaining a likely insurmountable four-point lead.
But most of all, he and Buckeyes fans everywhere are fortunate their team has a whole lot more weapons at its disposal. Like Lewis, OSU's unsung scoring leader and sometimes overzealous shooter, who, in addition to providing an encore to his buzzer-beater against Tennessee earlier this season scored a game-high 27 points. And Conley, Oden's high-school teammate, who, after Doellman hit the opening shot of overtime to give Xavier its last lead, rolled off seven consecutive points to regain momentum for good.
"We lose a big inside presence when [Oden] goes out," said Conley. "But we played seven games without him. We've learned to play without him because he gets in foul trouble sometimes. I think our team did a great job of being gutsy in those last nine seconds and overtime."
Matta spent much of the game getting booed by the surprisingly large contingent of Xavier fans (Cincinnati is just 90 minutes away, half the distance of OSU), many of them still bitter about the coach's sly departure three years ago. Even they, however, would have to admit the guy is one heck of a coach. Not only has he led the Buckeyes to 19 straight wins and now their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1999, but he's done so while holding together what could easily have morphed into the nation's most dysfunctional team a long time ago.
Take a quick look back at the Buckeyes' season. You had the most hyped recruit in decades step into the lineup seven games into the season. You've got two other freshmen, Conley and Dequan Cook, who are the next-most talented players on the roster but have had to defer leadership responsibilities for now to the less-decorated seniors. And one of those seniors, Lewis, so desperately wants to be "the man" that he briefly lost his starting job in part because of his seeming unwillingness to get the ball to Oden. (Lewis saw his scoring average dip by nearly seven points once Oden got healthy enough to play.)
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