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CHICAGO — It was all old hat, right down to the Big Ten tournament championship caps Ohio State slipped on for the third time in four years.
But this celebration felt different.
As a blast of confetti rained on to the stage Sunday after the 10th-ranked Buckeyes’ 50-43 victory over No. 22 Wisconsin, coach Thad Matta told the United Center crowd, "I’ve never been prouder of a basketball team."
He meant it, too. With the Buckeyes’ eighth straight victory the latest ringing statement in a month filled with them, Matta finally confirmed the obvious: This team has surprised him.
"In this league?" Matta said. "Yeah. From where we were?"
Forget the wealth of riches that have defined many of Matta’s teams, including two that crashed the Final Four. The most winding season of his nine in Columbus appeared lost a month ago when the Buckeyes flew home in silence from a 22-point loss at Wisconsin — a defeat that dropped OSU to 1-7 against ranked teams.
Now, a team that lost All-American forward Jared Sullinger and guard William Buford without adding any piece of significance enters the NCAA tournament as the in-vogue pick nobody wants to play.
With guard Aaron Craft playing the best basketball of his career and a roster embracing its roles around centerpiece scorer Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes have not lost in the nation’s best conference since mid-February — the latest being the score-settling bruiser Sunday.
"Where we came from and what we’ve been through with having nobody else really on our side but us, it really makes you appreciate what we accomplished," said Craft, a Liberty-Benton graduate who finished with nine points and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. "It’s a great feat."
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"Incredible," Thomas said.
The Buckeyes, who open the NCAA tournament Friday in Dayton as a No. 2 seed against Iona, beat a fourth top-25 opponent in three weeks with an 11-2 closing run defined by one of their season’s top defensive stretches.
If OSU couldn’t score much — the Buckeyes had only 10 second-half field goals and missed 5 of 6 3-pointers in a 27-point second half — it made sure Wisconsin didn’t at all. After trailing 41-39 with 7:03 remaining, OSU held Wisconsin without a field goal the rest of the way.
During each timeout down the stretch, Matta said he told his team, "You've got one more gear. You've got one more gear."
And they always seemed to have one, holding the long and physical Badgers team that shot 38 percent overall to just one offensive rebound in the second half and relentlessly pressuring the ball. Matta called the defense as "good as it can possibly be."
Eventually, the only thing missing showed up.
''Fortunately for us, we made some big plays and then finally knocked a couple shots down," Matta said.
Thomas, who had a game-high 17 points on 6-of-19 shooting and seven rebounds, tied the game with two free throws with 6:44 left while an end-to-end driving score by Craft put the Buckeyes ahead for good at 43-41. Reserve forward LaQuinton then added back-to-back scores — including one off an offensive rebound — to build OSU’s lead to six and effectively ice the game.
A celebration no one saw coming could begin.
"Yeah," Matta said again, before reconsidering. "But not shocked. Because they’ve competed, they’ve stuck together. ... That’s the beauty of coaching, when you see that."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.