Whether it’s football or basketball, Ohio State still owns the rivalry with Michigan.
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And rather than a Rose Bowl bid, this time the reward might be the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed.
Jared Sullinger had 14 points and 13 rebounds and Jon Diebler scored 16 points, leading No. 1 Ohio State to a 68-61 victory over the Wolverines on Saturday. The win gave the Buckeyes a three-game season sweep of their archrivals and a date in their third straight Big Ten tournament championship game.
”You love a game with a little fight to it, especially being your archrival in Michigan,” Sullinger said. ”There’s a little bad blood, but at the same it’s basketball and, you know, we came out with the win. That’s all that matters.”
The intensity of the football rivalry has rarely been matched on the basketball court.
But there was a certain buzz at Saturday’s semifinal. The highly partisan Buckeyes crowd and the small Michigan student section wearing yellow shirts in the upper deck of Conseco Fieldhouse traded cheers and jeers. The Wolverines’ pep band softly sung improvised lyrics to the tunes the Ohio State band played.
At one point, tempers even flared when Michigan’s Jordan Morgan grabbed Sullinger by the leg. Sullinger fell to the floor and William Buford and Morgan got into a brief shoving match – just like the football games.
”Will told me ‘I’ve got your back because I’m tired of you getting picked on,”’ said Sullinger, the 6-foot-9, 280-pound forward who rarely gets shoved around. ”Will feels like I get picked on a lot and that people try to yank my chain and Will decided enough is enough and he decided to step in there.”
Ohio State (31-2), the regular-season league champs, will face Penn State, a 61-48 winner over seventh-seeded Michigan State in Saturday’s second game. The Nittany Lions (19-13) are trying to become the first No. 6 seed since Iowa in 2001 to win on four consecutive days.
The Buckeyes, winners of six straight, join Illinois (2003-05) as the only conference teams to play in three straight championship rounds. A win would make Ohio State the first back-to-back tourney winner since Michigan State in 2000. Both of those Spartans teams reached the Final Four.
But the Buckeyes aren’t worried about the No. 1 seed. They just want to win.
”We’re going to play a really good team again tomorrow, we’re going to prepare like it’s the next game on the schedule because it is and the thing that I love about this team, that’s sort of how they want it. That’s what they do,” coach Thad Matta said. ”It’s another opportunity to play a game. That’s how I’ve seen their minds work all year.”
The difference between the rivals Saturday was balance, experience and poise.
Sophomore Darius Morris led the Wolverines (20-13) with 16 points. Freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. had 15. Nobody else reached double figures for fourth-seeded Michigan, which will have to wait until Sunday evening to find out if it has done enough to earn one of 37 at-large bids from the NCAA tournament selection committee.
”The big thing I would say is that we finished fourth in a great conference,” coach John Beilein said. ”I have never seen the Big Ten be this strong in my four years here. It is tough to win on the road here, it is, top to bottom, it’s a very good conference and we finished fourth and we got to the semifinals.”
Ohio State, meanwhile, relied mostly on veterans and Sullinger.
Diebler and Buford steadied the Buckeyes after their sluggish start and played big roles in two key second-half runs.
The first came at the start of the second half. Buford’s 15-footer with 16:18 to go ended the 7-0 spurt that helped Ohio State extend its 31-27 halftime lead to 38-27.
Buford finished with 14 points.
Morris and Hardaway, as they did in Friday’s quarterfinal win over Illinois, rallied the Wolverines. Hardaway’s driving layup with 9:51 to play got Michigan within 47-45.
But that’s when Ohio State’s big three turned the game.
Sullinger started the run with a 5-foot jumper and a free throw, and Buford scored seven straight points with Sullinger on the bench. The Buckeyes scored 16 straight to make it 63-45.
Game over, right?
”There’s been a couple times (this year) where we’ve been kind of knocked down and we just kept fighting,” Michigan’s Zack Novak said. ”We knew there was still a chance, so we were going to keep fighting.”
But they didn’t have enough.
The Wolverines went on 13-0 spurt in the closing minutes, getting as close as 65-61 with 21.4 seconds to go before Ohio State closed it out at the free throw line – eliminating their biggest rival for the second straight year.
”Knowing Michigan, we’ve been up 12 at their place, we were up 15 at our place and we were up what, 17, here, and they came back,” Sullinger said. ”They never quit. Michigan never quits. And we played a great basketball game.”