Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fall From The Top

For the Ohio State Buckeyes' basketball team and its fans, the 2011 NCAA Tournament was supposed to serve as a confirmation of greatness.

Ohio State expected success in the 2011 NCAA Tournament

Following a 29-2 regular-season record, a Big Ten Conference championship and the #1 overall seed for March Madness...the tournament was to serve as a mere formality, until the Buckeyes were celebrating an NCAA title by cutting down the nets in Houston.

News crews followed Ohio State on its March Madness journey

Ohio State contained all of the necessary components to win. They had a dominant interior force with freshman phenom Jared Sullinger, who averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds-per-game. They had an outside sharpshooter in Jon Diebler, who hit roughly half of his 3-point attempts on the season. The Buckeyes also featured some solid contributors -- such as William Buford, David Lighty and Aaron Craft -- who could get things done on both sides of the ball.

That's part of the allure of the Madness, however -- it almost never goes the way you expect it.

The Buckeyes had all the tools you'd expect from a winning team

After blowing out Texas-San Antonio and George Mason in their 1st two NCAA Tournament games, the Buckeyes advanced to the East Regionals and a "Sweet 16" date with the Kentucky Wildcats.

As fans descended upon Newark, New Jersey's Prudential Center, the numerous Ohio State supporters were caught in a wave of confidence. Some had their pictures taken in front of the arena while spelling out O-H-I-O with their arms. Others took in the sights-and-sounds of the nearby FanFest. There was no sense of nervousness among those clad in scarlet-and-gray, but rather anticipation for the upcoming game.

Many attending the FanFest wore scarlet-and-gray under their coats

Kentucky fans, on the other hand, almost seemed grateful for their Sweet 16 opportunity. After going 22-8 in the regular-season, the Wildcats stormed to the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship and a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Once there, Kentucky faced some tough tests...slipping by a spunky Princeton team in the 2nd round, then topping West Virginia in the 3rd round to advance to Newark.

Kentucky fans knew that their Wildcats faced a tough test

Inside the Prudential Center, the ticket distribution fairly represented the fans' expectation levels. There was far more Ohio State scarlet in the sold-out crowd of 18,343 than there was Kentucky blue.

Many in the sold-out Prudential Center crowd were cheering on Ohio State

If the regional semifinals were to be a mere checkpoint during Ohio State's road to Houston, Kentucky didn't get the memo. Trailing by 7 points in the 1st half, the Wildcats fought back and kept the game tight. At halftime, the Buckeyes and Wildcats were tied at 30.

The #1 team in the nation faces a challenge!

One of Kentucky's greatest strengths on this night was its defense, limiting Ohio State to almost 31% shooting in the 1st half, while blocking 5 shots. The Wildcats' cheering section would burst into a frenzy during every big defensive stop...and that excitement slowly began to catch on among the arena's neutral spectators. Could the #1 team in the nation really be in trouble?

Tough defense helped Kentucky keep the game close

As the 2nd half went on, it became clear that this game would be a fight to the finish. Hard-nosed play would lead to some bickering on the court, ratcheting up the intensity inside the Prudential Center. Neither team could establish a sustained run...whenever Kentucky would score, Ohio State would follow, and vice-versa.

Both teams were laying it all on the line

Ohio State's spectator strength-in-numbers was neutralized by a combination of Kentucky fans, and those who wanted to see a major NCAA Tournament upset. Little-by-little. the cheers would get louder for every made basket by the Wildcats.

Kentucky's confidence grew as the game wore on

As the game approached its final minute, Kentucky held a 58-57 lead. Virtually everyone in the arena -- regardless of rooting interests -- was standing and watching the action on the court.

With :36.2 left, junior guard DeAndre Liggins hit a driving bank shot from just outside the key, giving Kentucky a 60-57 advantage! The best team in college basketball was now clearly on the ropes, and Ohio State head coach Thad Matta called a timeout to discuss strategy.

DeAndre Liggins scores a big basket to help Kentucky's upset bid

Although the Buckeyes were down, they most certainly were not out. Playing with the heart of a champion, Ohio State drove the ball into the frontcourt. The Buckeyes put the ball in the hands of their sharpshooter, Jon Diebler, who calmly nailed a 3-pointer with :22.1 remaining. The game was now tied at 60! The crowd erupted in appreciation of this classic contest.

Jon Diebler sinks a 3-pointer to tie the game!

Rather than call a timeout of his own, Kentucky head coach John Calipari decided to try and take advantage of the chaos. The ball was in freshman Brandon Knight's possession.

The Wildcats' guard, who averaged over 17 points-per-game on the season, dribbled near the NCAA logo at center-court as the seconds ticked away. With :09 remaining, Knight -- who only had scored 7 points in this game -- began his drive to the basket. Dribbling with his right hand, Knight crossed the three-point line...then pulled up for a jumper from 18-feet away...and the shot goes in!

Freshman guard Brandon Knight came through when it mattered most

With the score now 62-60 and :05.4 left, Ohio State frantically moved the ball up the court. It wound up in the hands of William Buford...and as his 3-point attempt sailed toward the basket, the Prudential Center crowd held its collective breath. It bounced off the rim as the final buzzer sounded. The Kentucky supporters erupted into cheers, while the Ohio State fans groaned.

William Buford's last-second attempt just missed its mark

Just like that, the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament was eliminated. There will be no championship coronation for Ohio State this year, nor will there be any debates of this team's place in history. A trip to the Final Four even eluded the Buckeyes. In a cruel twist of fate, a 34-3 season was now considered a disappointment.

Kentucky pulls off the astonishing upset!

As the Wildcats and their fans celebrated the monumental victory and started looking forward to Sunday's East Regional Final against North Carolina, the Buckeyes absorbed the epic defeat. The players walked slowly toward the locker room, their heads tilted downward. Some scarlet-and-gray-wearing fans immediately headed for the exits...while others stared blankly at the court or scoreboard, wondering what went wrong.

The Ohio State season comes to a shocking halt

On the street outside the arena, some Ohio State supporters held up their tickets for Sunday's game, desperately looking to sell them for a reasonable price. For many Buckeyes' fans, it would have been too painful to return to the Prudential Center...and watch others playing for a Final Four spot that they thought was rightfully theirs.

The Wildcats move on to the Elite Eight

Someday, many of these fans will look back on the 2010-11 Ohio State basketball season and think fondly of the memories that this team provided. But the heartbreak of a Friday night in Newark, New Jersey will remain at the forefront of their minds...as a season and a dream came to a sudden end.

The Prudential Center is now a "house of horror" for Buckeyes' fans

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