David Lighty battles Penn State's David Jackson. Lighty says the win was a step toward the team's goal of being NCAA champions.
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When he speaks, the Buckeyes tend to listen.
Lighty reminded his Ohio State teammates that Sunday's championship game in the Big Ten tournament was crucial, but it was not the ultimate. After top-ranked Ohio State put away Penn State 71-60 to win the Big Ten tournament crown, and add it to the regular season championship already in hand, Lighty was back in his wise, old sage mode.
"I said before we got here that this tournament was very important, and that we needed to win it, but I wanted to make sure nobody saw it as do-or-die," Lighty said. "It was just step two. The Big Ten regular season championship was step one, this was two, and the NCAA tournament is step three. Winning this is great, but we don't want to go too crazy celebrating because step three is still out there."
Ohio State, after holding down the No. 1 spot in the country for two long periods this season, was a lock to make the NCAA field. But before the Buckeyes could get to thinking about the bracket and who their opponent might be, there was this date with Penn State at Conseco Fieldhouse.
The Nittany Lions came from the sixth seed into the championship game by defeating Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan State along the way. Penn State would not go easily. The Nittany Lions were within one point of Ohio State with just four minutes left in the first half.
Senior Dallas Lauderdale then blocked a shot as Penn State's Talor Battle drove to the basket, and the Buckeyes took off and scored on the break. William Buford hit a shot with 37 seconds left, and then Jon Diebler nailed a long triple with less than a second to play to give Ohio State a 29-23 halftime advantage.
"They were going to fight, we knew that," said Buford, who led the Buckeyes with 18 points. "Every game over here has been a struggle. We expected that, because everybody seems to give us their best shot."
Ohio State (32-2) assumed control of the game early in the second half when its defense pushed Penn State deep into the shot clock on several unproductive possessions, and the Buckeyes converted at the other end. Buford's 3-pointer from the corner made it a 14-point lead, and when freshman point guard Aaron Craft hit a triple from out front, the lead was 46-29 with 13 minutes left.
"Ohio State is a very good team -- they guard you," Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said. "They made some big shots."
Each time Penn State attempted to swing the momentum its way, the Buckeyes doused the effort.
"I thought our guys did a tremendous job of weathering the storm of Penn State's runs," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "We made the plays we had to make, and we were able to open it up there."
With one last push, Penn State (19-14) got within 10 with five minutes to play, but Ohio State got a quick three-point-play from freshman Jared Sullinger and closed out the win.
"We've got a lot of guys who can make plays, and it's really hard to focus on one guy," Diebler said. "Also, I don't think we get enough credit for our defense at times."
Diebler added 15 points for Ohio State, while Sullinger had 15 points and 11 rebounds for his third double-double of the tournament. Talor Battle led Penn State with 24 points.
The Buckeyes move on to Cleveland to play in the NCAA tournament at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday. Ohio State is the top seed in the region and overall. The Buckeyes will face the winner of Wednesday night's game in Dayton, which has Texas-San Antonio (19-13) meeting Alabama State (17-17).
Lighty, who started his first game for the Buckeyes back in November of 2006, said he is relieved to arrive at the start of step three. Despite missing most of one season due to injury, Lighty has been part of several NCAA ventures, including Ohio State's run to the national championship game in 2006-07.
"It's here now -- step three," he said. "We'll celebrate this Big Ten tournament championship on the way home, then go to work getting ready for the NCAA."
NOTE: Ohio State had three players named to the Big Ten all-tournament team. Buford, Diebler, and Sullinger were on the seven-man unit, along with Kalin Lucas of Michigan State, Battle of Penn State, and Michael Thompson of Northwestern. Sullinger, who was the first player to have a double-double in each game of the tournament, was named the MVP.
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.