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COLUMBUS — Sunday’s game between Ohio State and Indiana featured all the requisites for another classic in this rollicking Big Ten season.
Two top-10 rivals playing with a desperate edge. A sold-out crowd of 18,809 whose first inhabitants had camped outside Value City Arena since Wednesday. An Indiana legend stirring that froth by formally trading in one shade of red sweater for another.
Before the game, former Hoosiers coach and OSU alum Bob Knight was shown on the videoboard jabbing his old school.
"I used to coach a little bit," Knight said, smiling, "and there's nothing better than Ohio State basketball."
Then the game started.
For OSU, its 81-68 loss to top-ranked Indiana represented the rarest of occurrences — a Big Ten dud.
A Buckeyes team that displayed promise of a more balanced future in an overtime loss at Michigan earlier in the week reverted to "Deshaun and the Miracles," while Indiana flexed its balance, proving there just might be nothing better than Hoosiers basketball this season.
Junior forward Deshaun Thomas scored 26 points — including 20 of the first 44 — but got little help, effectively ending the Buckeyes’ darkhorse hopes of winning a fourth straight Big Ten regular-season title. OSU (17-6, 7-4 Big Ten) fell two games behind league-leading Indiana (20-3, 8-2 Big Ten) and Michigan State (20-4, 9-2).
"It’s a long season," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "We knew there was going to be a stretch where it was fight or flight. We have to get that fight back."
Indiana — which beat a top-10 opponent on the road for the first time since 2000 at Notre Dame — showed an OSU team still searching for its offensive identity what it means to be elite.
Playing with a purpose absent their meltdown loss at Illinois on Thursday, the Hoosiers turned a a 43-39 lead into a 53-41 edge early in the second half and ceded little hope from there, building their advantage to as many as 16. OSU could stop one player, then watch another score from anywhere on the court.
Guard Victor Oladipo scored a career-high 26 points on 8-of-10 shooting, 7-foot center Cody Zeller bullied inside with 24 on 8-of-11 shooting, and 6-foot-9 forward Christian Watford made four of five 3-pointers to add 20. IU coach Tom Crean said the Big Three played "as well as a triangle as you can get."
"We'd guard, and they'd throw it down to Zeller, and he was just finishing,'' Matta said. ''We couldn't gain that momentum."
Buckeyes players later noted the officials called the game tighter than most black-and-blue conference games — and had a season-high 27 fouls whistled on them to back the case — but did not wade into excuse territory. They knew the gap Sunday transcended a bounce here, a whistle there. As a team, IU shot 53.1 percent from the field (26 of 49) — the highest by an OSU opponent this season.
"It was not our type of defense today," said OSU guard Aaron Craft, who added 16 points for OSU. "Those guys made big shots and were tough to defend. ... We definitely didn’t have the same effort as against Michigan. We’ve got to be able to bounce back. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves."
Matta, meanwhile, continues his search for the right combination.He said the Buckeyes have "shown they can play great basketball," but consistency remains a sticking point. OSU fell to 1-6 against ranked teams and suffered its first back-to-back losses in 121 games — a national-best streak dating to January, 2010, when national player of the year Evan Turner was sidelined with a back injury.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.