INDIANAPOLIS – Call it inexperience, blame it on naïveté, but Michigan's young team was undaunted by No. 1 Ohio State in a 68-61 Big Ten tournament semifinal loss Saturday at Conseco Fieldhouse.
Not before the game. … Not in the midst of a 16-0 second-half Buckeyes' run that seemed to sap the Wolverines' last bit of hope. … Despite the fact that OSU's suffocating defense hindered, altered and swatted shot after shot.
Maybe not even after it was over.
"We showed some moments today where we were still very youthful," coach John Beilein said. "But Ohio State is a heck of a team, and they beat us fair and square."
Beilein understood even if his players didn't. The lesson: Don't whack a hornet's nest with stick and expect not to get stung.
A confrontation after Jared Sullinger was tangled up near Michigan's bench with 7:44 left prompted a scrum among the teams. The Wolverines' Jordan Morgan chose to toss an elbow at William Buford.
Bad move. Sullinger, Buford and the Buckeyes responded by building a seven-point edge into what proved an insurmountable 18-point cushion.
"When you see something like that, you start to get a little more of a sense of urgency," said Buckeyes freshman guard Aaron Craft, who promptly made a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession. "If they're going to start doing that, you need to hunker down a little harder and try to do as much as you can to beat them on the scoreboard."
Still, Michigan (20-13) kept scrapping until the final buzzer. Guards Darius Morris, a sophomore and Tim Hardaway Jr., a freshman, played the stars. Morris drove for 16 points and three assists. Hardaway had 15 points and four rebounds. They hung with the Buckeyes, the most diversely talented team in the country, for much of the day.
Ultimately, OSU's mix of veteran leadership and emerging stars prevailed, steamrolling toward the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Buford made the Wolverines pay for the 'bow, knocking down three big jumpers as the Buckeyes made it 63-45 with 4:49 remaining He finished with 14 points and four assists to put the upstarts in their place.
"We all got fired up after the thing that happened with 'Sully,' so were ready to come out and lock up on defense and get pretty good shots," Buford said. "That took care of it."
Defensively, Ohio State (31-2) was just plain scary. The Buckeyes blocked six shots, with senior Dallas Lauderdale collecting a pair. They limited Michigan to 37.3 percent shooting for the game. All the numbers, including the final margin, would have been even more impressive had Michigan not hit four 3-pointers – two each by Zach Novak and Evan Smotrycz – in what amounted to garbage time.
"Our defense was pretty good," coach Thad Matta understated. "Dallas was tremendous. He came in blocking shots and did a great job of using his size."
Sullinger (14 points, 13 rebounds) posted his 16th double-double of the season. Senior guard Jon Diebler (16 points, five rebounds) also shined for Ohio State, which advanced to the Big Ten title game for the third consecutive season. The Buckeyes face surging Penn State, playing to ensure its NCAA life, for the crown Sunday.
Ohio State also might have taught something to the critics who question their depth. With Craft and swingman David Lighty in early foul trouble, DeShaun Thomas and Jordan Sibert made key contributions. Thomas had nine points and four boards. Sibert logged 11 quality minutes, and had a steal and a thunderous dunk.
"Jordan comes off the bench and gets you a huge steal," Sullinger said. "DeShaun, we call him 'Tank.' It's hard to stop him. He can score in so many ways and rebound. He can shoot the '3.' He can finish through contact. He's a good basketball player.
"They both know how to play defense as well."
Despite the loss, Michigan expects, but is not guaranteed, to earn a berth in the NCAA field of 68. The Wolverines, picked to finish at the bottom of the league and who started 1-6 in conference play, have overachieved.
"We did a good job of blocking out preseason rankings and the negative talk that people were saying," Novak said. "We understood we were a young team with a lot of unproven players, so there really was no reason for people to think much of us.
"There were times this year where we easily could have quit. But leadership on our coaching staff just kept everyone going in the right direction and we never quit. I think that we showed a lot of resiliency this year."
Sounds like an enlightened team, a team with a future.
Ohio State? It's the present.