INDIANAPOLIS – As the higher seed, Michigan got to take the court at Lucas Oil Stadium. A few moments before Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinal showdown with Ohio State, the Wolverines charged onto an empty court as their fans rose to their feet.
And from the speakers, “Buckeye Battle Cry” rang out. Someone had hit a wrong button somewhere, and after a few bars the music changed to a prerecorded version of “Hail to the Victors.”
It was a sign of what was to come. Playing their third game in as many days and down a key player, fifth-seeded Ohio State (21-8) advanced to the conference tournament championship game for the first time in eight years with a 68-67 win against No. 1 overall seed Michigan (20-4).
The Buckeyes last reached the finals when they defeated Wisconsin 50-43 in 2013. They will play the winner of Iowa and Illinois.
Down 27-26 at the half, Duane Washington Jr., E.J. Liddell and the rest of the Buckeyes shook off some tired legs and pulled away around the midpoint of the second half. Trailing 43-42, Ohio State put together an 11-0 run to take a 53-43 lead, then increased it to 11 on a Washington 3-pointer a possession later on which he seemed to hardly glance at the net.
Along the way, Walker was everywhere on defense, going full-on Superman for a pair of loose balls to prevent the Wolverines from second-chance points. Justice Sueing, with 5:17 to play, fouled out Michigan’s Franz Wagner while scoring to push the lead back to 11.
Washington, who had 30 in the first meeting between these teams this season, scored all but five of his 24 after halftime. Ohio State scored on 10 of 12 possessions during one stretch, turning the 43-42 deficit into a 67-56 lead.
Michigan would put together an 11-1 run, though, and the outcome wasn’t secure until Michigan’s Mike Smith missed a jumper at the buzzer.
The game took a pair of tough losses before it got underway. Ohio State was without senior Kyle Young, who suffered what was confirmed pregame as a concussion in Friday’s game against Purdue. Michigan was without senior guard Isaiah Livers, its best 3-point shooter, after an MRI revealed he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot in Friday’s win against Maryland.
Young is now in concussion protocol. He will be evaluated daily, and his status going forward is unknown. In his place, junior Musa Jallow moved into the starting lineup.
Reflecting both those injuries, as well as the others that pile up at this point in the season and the fatigue level of playing on multiple days, the game bore little resemblance to the 92-87 thriller at Value City Arena on Feb. 21. Duane Washington Jr. scored on a floater during Ohio State’s second possession, moving him past 1,000 career points, but the Buckeyes wouldn’t make another two-point shot until 7:05 remained in the half when CJ Walker scored on a fast-break layup.
To that point, Ohio State was 1-for-14 from inside the arc as it struggled to get much of anything in the way of a clean look. By the end of the half, the Buckeyes had used all 11 available scholarship players, including sophomore Ibrahima Diallo, who had been on the court for just one second in part due to injury since a Dec. 13 win against Cleveland State.
Seth Towns hit a corner 3-pointer in the final minute of the half to send Ohio State into the locker room down 27-26.