COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—It’s been almost six years now and Matt Sylvester is still occasionally recognized for one flick of the wrist.
On a cold March day, in the final regular-season game of the 2004-05 season, it was the lanky and loose substitute forward who nailed the late 3-pointer that helped Ohio State ruin Illinois’ unbeaten season.
“Yeah, I was Public Enemy No. 1,” he said with a chuckle. “I think only the true sports fans have any harsh feelings about it. But, yeah, I do get that every once in a while: ‘You’re the guy who did that to me!”’
Sylvester, now in the financial industry in Columbus, sees the eerie similarities between then and now. On Saturday, the No. 23 Illini host No. 1 Ohio State. Rest assured that Illinois fans haven’t forgotten what happened.
“It’s a little bit scary especially because when we were fortunate enough to upset Illinois, we were really under the radar—and to be quite honest with you, we just weren’t that good,” Sylvester said. “But now, it’s different in that Ohio State knows what they’re walking into, not only a really good team in Illinois, but also a tough place to play there in Champaign with the ‘Orange Crush’ fans.”
Ohio State’s program was at its nadir back then. Thad Matta was in his first season as coach, taking over in midsummer for Jim O’Brien, who was fired for NCAA violations. The Buckeyes had only played a few games in early December when athletic director Andy Geiger, hoping to mitigate impending NCAA penalties, announced that the team would not accept any potential postseason tournament bid.
So Matta was stuck with a team that wasn’t all that talented, and knew it wasn’t going anywhere. And it was a tough situation, because none of the players or coaches on the team had been around for any of the violations.
Heading into that March 6 game, on the other hand, the Illini were at an apex. They were 29-0 with a star-studded team featuring guards Deron Williams and Dee Brown. They had a deep bench and a lot of momentum as they traveled to Value City Arena for their final regular-season game. They only needed a win over downtrodden Ohio State (18-12, 7-8) to become the first team in 29 years to roll through the Big Ten unbeaten.
But then Sylvester—a wise-cracking, quote machine who was the son of an ex-college player—stunned the Illini and the basketball world by pouring in a long 3 with 5.1 seconds left.
“I can remember going into the game, it was an attempt to keep it close,” Matta said. “I think (Illinois) is one of the best Big Ten teams I’ve seen in a long time. For that game, for our program, in year one, with a postseason ban on our team, I really view that as a game that gave us hope as a program.”
That game proved to be a building block for the Buckeyes. In subsequent years, they have posted records of 35-4, 24-13, 22-11 and 29-8. This season they are off to the third-best start (19-0, 6-0) in the program’s 112 years.
The Illini (14-5, 4-2) are far better than that overlooked Ohio State team from six years ago. They have more quality wins than the current Buckeyes do, too, having beaten Michigan State, Wisconsin, Maryland, North Carolina and Gonzaga.
Coach Bruce Weber said the big upset in Columbus didn’t immediately pop into his head this week.
“I mean, it’s been brought up,” said Weber, in his eighth year. “We were in the last game of the year, going for perfection. Now we’re only six games into the Big Ten schedule. Can (the Buckeyes) keep winning? Can they win at different places? They have a long way to go, but you have some similarity there.”
His players—most of whom were in high school at the time—vividly recall the game.
“So, they remember,” Weber said. “But I don’t know if it’s going to be a major factor.”
Around Ohio State, Sylvester is remembered for little else other than what is called “The Shot.”
Fifth-year senior David Lighty was supposed to attend that Sunday afternoon game, but his prep team had practice.
“We know about ‘The Shot,”’ he said with a grin. “Everybody knows about ‘The Shot.”’
After that 65-64 victory, Matta uttered a prophetic statement—one that he might end up regretting.
“I’d like to be the other team just one time,” he said with a laugh moments after the upset. “I’m living for the day I’m the No. 1 team and someone else is trying to do it to us.”
Now, Ohio State is that No. 1 team. And the game is thick with irony.
Lighty is looking forward to the challenge of playing a good team in a rowdy venue with the chance to prove that Ohio State is deserving of being atop the polls.
Then he added, “As long as they’re not making ‘The Shot.”’