MADISON -- Fists balled, arms flexed at the elbow and mouthpiece partially ejected, Aaron Craft marched toward his teammates and spent a good six or seven steps of the journey screaming. Ohio State and Wisconsin both desperately needed to win Saturday afternoon, and in a 59-58 rock-fight victory, Craft’s Buckeyes did a better job of not losing. This was not a former national contender rising from the dead as much as one shuddering a bit while seemingly in a coma.
But it was a win, and a win meant catharsis, so Craft started screaming. This seemed appropriate given that the preceding moments mostly inspired gasps of terror. On a last-second break with a chance to deliver a three-point lead, Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith Jr. missed a challenged layup. Then he retrieved his own miss without a Wisconsin player in sight. Then teammate Amir Williams ran into Smith from behind. Then Smith fell on his back for a traveling violation.
That the Buckeyes literally undercut their own best chance of winning was not lost on anyone.
“First thing I’m thinking is, aww, here we go again, man,” forward LaQuinton Ross said. “When everything is going so good, then stuff starts going so wrong.”
Not that anyone mistook Saturday as going good for anyone. But more stuff went wrong for Wisconsin, including a final sequence that produced a hasty, disjointed, bricked three-point heave at the buzzer from Sam Dekker. That left the Buckeyes to celebrate a respite from misery as the Badgers sunk deeper into it. In early January, these teams sat in the top five of the Associated Press poll. As of Saturday, Wisconsin had lost four of five, Ohio State had lost five of six, and most everyone had lost faith that the promise of early January would have any relevance in March.
What transpired at the Kohl Center confirmed that. Instead of truly seizing a victory, Ohio State won because one team simply had to win by the rules of basketball. Wisconsin went the last six-plus minutes without a field goal, but neither team hit a shot in the final three minutes. The two players who publicly challenged their teammates during the week -- Dekker and Smith, Jr. -- combined for 3-of-13 shooting and two of the game’s most devastatingly anticlimactic moments at the end. The most productive player on the floor, Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes, scored 17 points but critically missed six of 11 free throws. Craft notched seven straight points in the final four minutes after going scoreless for the first 36.
Neither side can be considered a contender, not that the Buckeyes complained at all. In fact, they celebrated. Asked to describe the general feeling in the visitors’ locker room, Craft exhaled deeply.
“Just like that,” the Buckeyes' guard said. “It's a little relieving. You never want to lose any games, but this is a huge win for us. It doesn't matter how many times we lost, we lost. It's a phenomenal win for us.”
And just as stinging for Wisconsin. On Thursday, the typically good-humored Dekker played the straight man, telling reporters after practice that the Badgers were “being soft” and “unaggressive” and adding that “teams are coming in and punching us in the mouth and we're not punching back.” Before the national anthem Saturday, the sophomore forward marched up and down before a line of teammates, clapping in encouragement. Once in his place, Dekker nodded his head expectantly as walk-on Aaron Moesch smacked him on the chest to stoke the flame a little more.
Then came the blowout. Dekker would finish with four points on 2-of-6 shooting as Wisconsin’s production was intermittent, at best, beyond what Hayes offered. Despite that, the Badgers had a seven-point lead with nine minutes left. But that washed out with tentative offense and brutal free-throw shooting -- just 4-of-10 in the final 6:42 -- and a program that once had designs on the Final Four instead had the first three-game home losing streak of the entire Bo Ryan era.
“I don’t think we’re happy by any means,” Badgers guard Ben Brust said. “We want to get back to what we know we can be. We have to change something. We’re going to get back at it. We can’t sulk. We have to move on.”
That was the order of the afternoon, after this slog. Consider Ohio State coach Thad Matta’s reply when asked how his team clamped down on the Badgers down the stretch.
“Fouled,” Matta deadpanned, before taking a sip from his cup of water.
There was a bit more to it than that. Just not much more.
“From my seat, I think we had better composure,” Matta said. “We had a better pace to us, in terms of what we were trying to accomplish.”
That much the Buckeyes hashed out in a players-only meeting on Thursday, when the team convened on a mandatory day off following a brutal overtime home loss to Penn State just hours earlier. It broke a 54-game win streak in Columbus against unranked Big Ten opponents, and at that point, Smith seemingly broke, saying the loss was “embarrassing” and adding that everyone in the league was “laughing” at the Buckeyes.
The cutting words made their way to Ross through Twitter, who considered them and thought, He’s not wrong. So on Thursday, anyone and everyone else who had anything to say said it. “If you look at our team, you got multiple guys with multiple state championships on this team,” Ross said. “I don’t think guys are used to losing. And we haven’t lost like this since I’ve been here anyway.”
Said Craft: “We just looked at each other and knew we couldn't go selfish. We can't internalize things and expect everything to be allright. We have to play for a bigger purpose. If that's playing for the guy beside you, then that's what we need to do. I think you saw that [Saturday].”
It was true before the game, when Shannon Scott offered to abdicate a starting spot to help Sam Thompson get on track, and again at the end. Smith’s botched layup and turnover gave the Badgers a chance to win with 8.4 seconds left and gave the Buckeyes every opportunity to succumb to ill fortune again.
But Craft cut off Traevon Jackson’s initial penetration on the final sequence. Ross, whose defensive lapses haven’t gone unnoticed, slid into the gap to stifle Jackson’s ability to redirect to his left and then recovered nicely to pressure Dekker on the next-best look from the top of the key. It thudded off the rim at the horn. Craft screamed, Dekker walked off with a blank stare. One former national contender, Wisconsin, endured a third straight home loss and therefore an ending unlike it had seen years. The other, Ohio State, narrowly avoided a calamitous finish similar to many it had seen lately.
Based on Saturday, there still is no telling in the broader sense where these teams go now. There was only Matta, walking back to the locker room, fixed on where his Buckeyes were heading.
“I want to get out of here,” he said.