Senior saves Buckeyes, 'other' freshman ices it
For all of the hype surrounding Ohio State's freshmen, it took a fifth-year senior to provide what could be the Buckeyes' Tyus Edney moment.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Ohio State might have had its Tyus Edney moment Saturday in Rupp Arena -- a second-round great escape on the way to something truly special.
If so, then Ron Lewis' season-saving shot is destined to be woven into the March Madness montage for years to come. Or the Buckeyes' romance-robbing, 78-71 overtime ousting of Xavier might have exposed enough flaws to indicate that this isn't a national championship team after all.
Only the following game(s) will tell us for sure.
This much we do know: Nobody was getting out of this frantic second-round Saturday with any margin for error. So on this delicious day, the only thing that matters is that the lucky Bucks advance.
They do so at the expense of coach Thad Matta's former school, former players and former assistant coach, all of whom significantly outperformed the nation's No. 1-ranked team for 39 minutes and 51 seconds. It was the final nine seconds of regulation, plus five minutes of Greg Oden-less overtime, when Xavier let the biggest upset of this NCAA Tournament slip away.
The margin separating Ohio State from elimination? A fraction of an inch of Rupp Arena rim.
The rebound was snatched by Buckeyes forward Ivan Harris and passed to point guard Mike Conley Jr. He hustled the ball up the court and handed it off to Lewis about 25 feet away.
Then it was Ronald to the Rescue.
All you've heard about Ohio State all year is its fabulous freshman class. Oden, Conley, Daequan Cook and David Lighty. But it was a fifth-year senior who saved the bacon Saturday -- a senior who will be awarded his degree in sociology on Sunday.
A pretty nice weekend for Mr. Lewis and a quaint notion in this baby-faced NCAA Tournament: a guy at the tail end of a full college career walking off the hero.
This was the way Lewis wanted it when Ohio State called a timeout before Cage went to the line. The senior went to freshman Conley and told him, "Get me the ball."
After taking that Conley handoff, Lewis took one quick dribble to his right to gain separation from the Musketeers and rose up, roughly 22 feet away. Everyone in Rupp -- and, 85 miles north, everyone in the state of Ohio -- inhaled sharply.
Know this much: Lewis didn't own a reliable jump shot when he transferred to Ohio State from Bowling Green in 2004. So he spent his transfer year shooting every day under the tutelage of Buckeyes assistant coach John Groce.
"The biggest thing with Ron is making sure he has his feet in a stance when he's shooting," Groce said. "Play in a stance."
For the record, Groce said Lewis' stance looked just fine when he launched this shot. This was his 164th 3-point attempt of the season, 481st of his college career, and undoubtedly his most important.
"I had all the confidence in the world it was going in," Lewis said.
Lewis is a character study in one of the great side effects of March Madness: a senior who elevates his play to a higher level than he's ever attained before. He has averaged 17 points in March, up from 11.2 points prior to that.
"When guys are seniors, they sense the end of the road and start to do things they hadn't done before," Groce said. "You can see him surging at the end of the season."
Lewis surged confidently into the air for that 3-pointer.
"I think I jumped higher than I ever jumped on a shot before," he said.
After the resulting pure swish with two seconds left, every Buckeyes fan in the Rupp jumped higher than he or she ever had before.
"I looked at the crowd," Lewis said. "I wanted to see their reaction, and it was a sweet one."
Lewis got Ohio State into overtime. Conley took the Buckeyes home from there.
Smaller in size and reputation than Oden, his former Indianapolis Lawrence North High School teammate, Conley rose heroically to the challenge in OT. His top-of-the-key 3 (just his 19th of the season) put Ohio State ahead for good at 65-64, and he followed that with consecutive layups against the crestfallen Musketeers.
By the time overtime was done, Conley had scored 11 of the Buckeyes' 16 points. For Ohio State, he'll be at least as important as his 7-foot running mate from here on out.
"He wasn't going to let us lose," Oden said of Conley.
Oden had fouled out late in regulation amid some controversy -- his cross-body block of Cage at :09.3, seemingly borne out of sheer frustration, could have resulted in an intentional foul, which would have given Xavier two free throws plus possession of the ball, which certainly would have been enough to ice the game.
Instead it was just a standard-issue personal.
"I thought so [that it was an intentional foul]," Cage said. "They didn't call it, I guess. I don't know how I fell on my own."
Xavier coach Sean Miller refused to make an issue of the play.
"It's irrelevant," Miller said. "He fouled, we had an opportunity, and the game moves on."
When asked, Matta changed the subject, saying he thought the whistle was a foul on Xavier on Lighty's follow attempt of a missed Jamar Butler 3-pointer. Lighty wound up on the deck on that play, and the outside official on the play raised his arm as if to call a foul but wound up putting his arm down and not blowing the whistle.
The final result of the under-basket scrum was two free throws for Cage, a senior recruited out of Indianapolis by Matta. Cage had scored a career-high 22 to that point, hitting all seven of his field goal attempts, including three from the arc (he'd made only 10 all season), and 5-of-6 free throws.
In fact, Cage was integral to a Miller second-half stratagem that de-pantsed his old boss and made Oden look bad, as well. Around the middle of the half, Xavier took command by running point guard Drew Lavender off a high screen, then having him pass to the screener on the wing to go one-on-one with Oden.
Oden is a much more imposing defender in the paint than 20 feet out on the wing trying to keep up with a smaller, quicker opponent. Utilizing Cage and sweet-shooting big man Josh Duncan in that matchup, Xavier drained five 3s in less than five minutes to take an 11-point lead.
And Matta looked powerless to stop it. He had no defensive adjustment that worked.
The last 3, a Lavender fallaway at the end of the shot clock with 7:15 left, had the look of a backbreaker.
Even down nine with less than four minutes to play, Ohio State refused to panic. Finally, Lewis' shot forced OT.
"He told us not to try to get all nine points back in one possession," Conley said. "We needed to take things one step at a time and not force shots."
One step at a time is the only way to reach Atlanta. Ohio State took a huge step Saturday -- a step that might be a sign of something special, or a sign of trouble to come.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.