Losers of five of their last six, the Buckeyes needed a win.
Of course, so did their opponent, as Saturday’s Ohio State-Wisconsin showdown in Madison pitted a pair of one-time championship contenders against one another, teams that since their stay in the nation’s top five have slid badly. Combined, the two teams lost nine of their last 11 games heading into Saturday.
The Buckeyes got the win, knocking off the Badgers, 59-58, at the Kohl Center, and there’s a strong argument to be made that they needed the win more. After all, the Badgers steamrolled through their non-conference slate, picking up wins against prime competition such as Florida, Green Bay and St. Louis. And though the Buckeyes entered Big Ten play undefeated, too, their best wins came against disappointing Marquette and Notre Dame teams.
So, with all the struggles Ohio State entered Saturday’s game with — a midweek home loss to Big Ten bottom feeder Penn State was the worst of them — Saturday’s victory meant a lot.
“Great win, obviously,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said after the game. “I’m proud of our guys in terms of rebounding off of a tough, devastating home loss the other night on a last-second shot. In two days, to come up here — actually a one-day prep — I’m very, very happy and proud of our guys. But we get home, wash our clothes, back our bags and we’re going to Iowa on Tuesday.”
Matta’s instant pivot to the next game might be coach cliche No. 1, but it’s not without reason. Through their losing stretch, the Buckeyes have seen first hand just how tough it is to win in the Big Ten, even for a good team. Heck, Wisconsin is still going through it. So with a road game against Iowa next on the docket, there’s reason to keep the focus zeroed in.
The Buckeyes played differently Saturday, though, and continuing to play like that could be the difference between a season turnaround and a place squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble.
“From my seat, I thought we had better composure. I thought we had a better pace about us. I thought we executed better down the stretch in terms of getting what we were trying to get out of our offense,” Matta said. “And we were telling guys, ‘You’re going to have to take a big shot, you’re going to have to make a big play, you’re going to have to make a big free throw.’ And I think that was kind of the difference, just more execution and obviously shots falling.”