CHARLIE NEIBERGALL / AP Enlarge
GERRY BROOME / AP Enlarge
ATLANTA - Not even three minutes into the game, and the whistle blew. Greg Oden dropped his head and started a slow walk to the bench.
Two quick fouls, and he was done for the half.
The turning point in the game, for sure. But not in the way anyone expected.
Take Oden away from Ohio State and the Buckeyes still play for the national championship. Take Roy Hibbert away from Georgetown and ... the Buckeyes still play Florida tomorrow for the national championship.
That much-anticipated matchup between Oden and Hibbert fizzled because of foul trouble. Instead, it was Mike Conley and the rest of the Buckeyes who carried top-seeded Ohio State to its first national title game since 1962 with a 67-60 victory over Georgetown last night.
"I just sat back and watched my teammates take over," Oden said.
Conley finished with 15 points, six assists and five rebounds for Ohio State (35-3). Oden added 13 points - all in the second half - and eight rebounds in 20 minutes.
"When he goes down with two fouls, our guys did a tremendous job stepping up," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "Michael was tremendous."
Hibbert was tremendous, too. He scored 19 points, had six
rebounds and one blocked shot in 24 minutes for the Hoyas, and he more than held his own against the younger, more celebrated Oden.
Problem was, he spent too much time as a spectator.
So did the rest of the Hoyas.
The 7-foot-2 Hibbert gave Georgetown a decided size advantage, especially when Oden was on the bench. And the Hoyas (30-7) had the edge on experience, although it was a slight one.
But Georgetown could never take control of the game when Oden went out, even with Hibbert on the floor. When Hibbert was out, the Hoyas were simply lost.
Jeff Green, the Big East player of the year who had been scoring a team-best 15.8 points in the NCAA tournament, had just nine points, and took only five shots the entire game. He did have 12 rebounds, but it wasn't enough - not when he went almost 17 minutes in the first half and 14 minutes in the second without a shot.
"I wouldn't change anything," Green said. "I didn't want to force anything. ... You've got to credit their defense. They had great weak-side defense. That made it tough on our teammates to try and throw the ball down to me."
DaJuan Summers, who had averaged 17.5 points the last two games, added a measly 3. That, at least, was more than the Georgetown bench. The reserves didn't contribute a single point. Not one.
The Hoyas had 14 turnovers - leading to 22 Ohio State points - and were outrebounded 37-30.
"When you lose a game, you can sit here and find a million things you wish you did differently, could have done differently, should have done differently," coach John Thompson III said. "That's the nature of this.
"We fought and scrapped the whole time. The ball didn't bounce our way. It happens."
Hibbert left the game with his third foul just four minutes into the second half. When he returned 3 1/2 minutes later, he scored a quick five points. Jonathan Wallace then hit a 3 that tied the game at 44 with 9:44 left.
But Hibbert picked up his fourth foul 20 seconds later.
"I had to make smarter decisions when I'm out there," Hibbert said. "I've got to be an all-around better player when it comes to knowing when to foul, when not to foul."
As he was heading back to the bench, Oden was returning.
Just like that, the momentum turned again.
"It was real tough in the first half, sitting there because I wanted to contribute," Oden said. "My teammates did really good. They stepped up and didn't allow them to get any offensive rebounds. In the second half, I just wanted to get in there and contribute."
After playing only three minutes the first half, he played all but three in the second, and while the Buckeyes know how to play without him, his presence seemed to energize Ohio State. He scored on a hook shot, and David Lighty and Jamar Butler added layups.
After a timeout, Oden took a hard foul from Green as he went up for what would have been a thunderous dunk.
"I was out for 17 minutes," Oden said, "I wanted to get in there and just tear the rim out."
Instead, he made one of two free throws for a 51-44 lead with 6:37 to play, and Ohio State was was never in trouble again.
"We felt that we were able to get the shots that we wanted. We just took some tough breaks," Wallace said. "But at times, yeah, we got a little careless with the ball. It's kind of uncharacteristic of us."
It was the 22nd straight victory for the Buckeyes, who will be playing for the national title Monday night for the fifth time in school history. They won the 1960 title, then lost the next two years. They also lost in the 1939 title game, the first year of the NCAA tournament.
The loss was only the second in 21 games for the Hoyas (30-7). And it spoiled Thompson's attempt to lead Georgetown to a title just as his father, John Thompson Jr., did in 1984.
Oden has a dazzling array of skills, and is a certain No. 1 pick in the NBA draft whenever he comes out. But he's still a freshman finding his way, and it's showed as he's struggled with foul trouble in the tournament.
It was no different last night. He picked up his first foul less than a minute into the game and the second not even two minutes later, and he spent the rest of the first half on the bench.
With Hibbert and Green's size advantage, the Hoyas should have been able to fluster Ohio State and take control of the game.
But Conley and the Buckeyes got used to playing without Oden when he missed the first seven games of the season recovering from wrist surgery, and they didn't even blink.
In just six minutes, Ohio State erased the two-point deficit it had when Oden took a seat and turned it into a seven-point lead. The Buckeyes trailed only once, 34-33, the rest of the game.
Ivan Harris started the 11-2 run with a 3-pointer, but it was Conley - Oden's high school teammate and childhood friend - who made the biggest plays. "When he came out of the game, all of us had that mind-set that we had to step up our level of play," Conley said. "Without him in the game, you lose a lot. We had to pick it up the best we could."33.74831 -84.39111