CHICAGO — Deshaun Thomas knew it. He was playing on borrowed time.
Three minutes had passed in Friday night’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal, and the Ohio State forward had already hurried a 3-pointer, failed to run a play as designed, and had been beaten twice on defense.
The Buckeyes trailed last-place Nebraska by five points when, finally, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta had enough. His face scarlet, his language colorful, he called a timeout and blistered his star as never before. The Big Ten’s leading scorer was benched.
"I told the team, if you’re not ready to go, you’re going to get embarrassed," Matta said. "And we were getting embarrassed."
When Thomas returned minutes later, the No. 10 Buckeyes set off on their most decisive run of the Big Ten season in a 71-50 victory at the United Center.
Ohio State (24-7) romped to its sixth straight victory — and into today’s semifinal game against Michigan State — with a 46-13 tear that spanned the halves. The Buckeyes turned an early 16-5 deficit into a 28-23 halftime lead. Then, as Thomas said, "everybody went bananas."
OSU scorched the Huskers with an up-and-down volley of deep balls and slams, missing only five shots after halftime. Thomas and sophomore guard Sam Thompson each finished with 19 points, but nearly the entire team was involved. In one three-possession sequence, reserve forward LaQuinton Ross hit back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers.
Asked about the "fatigue factor" with NU playing on consecutive days, Huskers coach Tim Miles replied, "I think the Ohio State factor was bigger."
The Buckeyes shot 59.1 percent (26 of 44) overall and 53 percent from beyond the arc (9 of 17). Nebraska shot 41.2 percent and had 15 turnovers.
"Once we focused in and got our minds where we needed to be, we were very effective, especially with the defense," Matta said. "Great team win."
As for the slow start, junior guard Aaron Craft smiled.
"We’re just trying to make sure coach is into the game," deadpanned Craft, who added seven points and eight assists. "We don’t want him to be sleeping on the sideline early, either. We know if we can get him going, he’s going to get us going. That’s really worked out well for us."
Matta can thank Thomas, the Buckeyes’ most talented scorer but a player who sometimes burrows into his own world.
Friday marked the latest step in his evolution. While Thomas said "younger Deshaun" would not have taken kindly to his early benching, he said it was deserved and remained upbeat on the sideline.
"Actually, I was just cheering on my teammates," Thomas said.
He said Matta told him, "Just calm down and get your mind right. Things are going to come to you."
And so they did. Thomas finished 5-of-9 from the field and had a game-high nine rebounds. After his one-handed slam put OSU ahead 54-28, he turned to the baseline and set free a full-throated roar.
"Everything was just flowing," Thomas said. Eventually.