The de facto Ohio State team playing in The Basketball Tournament that begins this weekend has more than the $2 million in prize money at stake. The tournament, opens to any player over 18, runs through Aug. 3.
For most of the Scarlet & Gray roster, it’s also a chance at a measure of redemption. Included on the roster for the competition are Dallas Lauderdale, Jared Sullinger, David Lighty, William Buford and Jon Diebler — all five starters for Ohio State’s 62-60 upset loss to Kentucky in the 2011 Sweet 16. Toss in Aaron Craft, who came off the bench on that team as a freshman and is part of the Scarlet & Gray roster, and it’s a chance for this group of players to write a new ending to their playing time together.
“This is a redemption tour,” said Sullinger, who led all scorers in that game with 21 points. “We’ve got some of the guys back that played on that team and we’re excited.”
The top-seeded Buckeyes, buoyed by fifth-year senior Lighty and seniors Diebler and Lauderdale, finished the season 34-3. They entered the game against the fourth-seeded Wildcats winners of nine straight and had blown out George Mason by 32 points to reach the regional semifinals in a game during which they hit 16 three-pointers.
Lighty, who was 7 for 7 in that win, said Ohio State was loose as it approached the Wildcats. Lauderdale, who hasn’t watched film of that game since, said their minds weren’t right.
“I’m not bitter about it, but at the same time I feel like we lost that game,” he said. “I feel like there were some things that we did that we shouldn’t have done leading up to the game and we got a little ahead of ourselves. I don’t think we had our full, 100 percent focus on that game and it was clear by the way we came out. I don’t think the game should’ve been that close.”
Six years removed, Lighty still remembered Ohio State’s shooting percentage against Kentucky: 32 percent. Yet, Diebler’s three-pointer in the final minute pulled the teams even at 60 before Brandon Knight — who finished 3 for 10 from the field — hit a tough, pull-up jumper over Craft to set the final score.
Craft still blames himself for the basket.
“I let him go right, and that’s on me,” he said. “He hit a game-winner during the tournament against Princeton going right, and that was my fault. I shouldn’t have let him get to his right hand. He made a good shot, but I think I could’ve made it different.”
When it was pointed out that Knight still had to hit a tough shot, Craft replied, “Not tough enough.”
The Buckeyes would get the final opportunity, but Buford’s three-pointer at the buzzer was off line. It capped a brutal shooting night from one of the program’s all-time best scorers, who was 2 of 16 from the floor.
He took the shot from the left wing with Diebler, the Big Ten’s all-time leading three-point shooter, screaming for the ball as he approached the top of the circle but the clock winding down.
“My dad always taught me there’s so many opportunities in a game where you can change the course of a game,” Diebler said. “Will was one of our better players all year. No one has ever one time blamed Will for us losing to Kentucky. I probably would’ve shot it, too, if I was Will.
“Will’s a scorer. Will’s a shooter. If he feels like he’s got a little bit of daylight he’s going to shoot it, and that’s what we want him to do. I’d tell him to shoot it again.”
It’s a loss that haunted coach Thad Matta for the rest of his Ohio State coaching career because this was a team that was legitimately poised to win a national championship. It’s a feeling those who played in the game still share.
“It’s still sticking with me to this day,” Lighty said. “Kentucky, you’ve got to give it to them. They played their asses off and they earned it, but I still feel we should’ve won the game.”
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