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No. 32 and No. 34 are March Madness heroes, separated by two digits on the Ohio State roster, separated by two points in a slugfest against Iowa State and, as it turns out late Friday night, separated physically by about two inches, seated on a brightly lit press conference platform as NCAA tournament victors. Fittingly, No. 32, Keyshawn Woods, and No. 34, Kaleb Wesson, were the last two players to walk off the BOK Center court moments after stunning a house-full of Iowa State fans by beating their sixth-seeded Cyclones, 62-59, in a pair of performances that’ll be rooted forever in their memories.
Woods, a senior, and Wesson, a sophomore, combined for 40 points, and they willed the 11th-seeded, once-on-the-bubble Buckeyes to victory with a bevy of scintillating acts over the final five minutes of a tight game. Let’s go in reverse order, shall we? Wesson got the game’s final rebound on a missed free throw, and Woods got the game’s final points––two free throws––moments before. Wesson, his 6’9”, 270-pound frame be damned, played such aggressive defense on the perimeter that he created a turnover with about 90 seconds left, which followed him sinking two free throws at the other end. Woods clocked a three-pointer at the 2:40 mark, 25 seconds after he’d hit a finger-rolling layup to regain a lead Ohio State would never lose.
And now here they were, the bright lights on their happy faces as a small group of reporters set before them, their coach, Chris Holtmann, seated to their left. “It was a whale of a game,” said Holtmann, who in his 10th NCAA tournament game finally won as a worse-seeded team. He’d lost four previous times, as a No. 6 vs. a No. 3, a No. 9 vs. a one, a No. 4 vs. a one and a No. 5 vs. four. In this one, his 11 beat a No. 6, and not just any No. 6 either. Last time out, Iowa State (23-12) lifted the Big 12 tournament trophy after clobbering Kansas. Meanwhile, Holtmann’s Buckeyes (20-14) sweated out Selection Sunday, one of the final half-dozen teams to get an at-large bid. “It validates the committee’s decision,” Holtmann said Friday night. “We felt like we had put together a really strong body of work and our guys had earned it. I think [Iowa State] was considered the highest of the sixth seeds maybe.”
This one felt like a home game for the Cyclones. Thousands of yellow-and-red clad fans packed into the BOK Center in downtown Tulsa. The few hundred Buckeyes fans who made the drive got to see their team play a relentless, aggressive defense, a performance that can be stacked up with those from the two No. 3 seeds at this site: Texas Tech and Houston, both of which rank in the top eight nationally in defense. How good was it? The Cyclones didn’t make a bucket for a consecutive stretch that lasted 9 minutes and 47 seconds––nearly one-fourth of a college basketball game. Their 17-13 lead with 11:12 left in the first half evaporated over that drought and even had coach Steve Prohm flabbergasted on the bench. “I looked at one of the assistants and said, ‘Man, we ain’t scored in forever,’” said Prohm.
The coach blamed his own team’s shot selection, ball movement and spacing. The Cyclones got “stagnant,” he said, before crediting the other side’s pressure. “We were really locked in for those 10 minutes,” said Woods, a graduate transfer from Wake Forest. With their arms flared out, Ohio State players created a fence between their opposition and the hoop. “They did a good job of gaping us. You could hear them saying ‘Elbows! Elbows!’” Prohm said. “It wasn’t’ a great offensive night.”
During their near-10-minute drought, Prohm’s team missed nine shots and fell into a 26-20 hole that they only briefly emerged from with 3 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game. They took a 54-53 lead before No. 32 and No. 34 went on their magical late-game run. Maybe it’s not magic––maybe it’s effort. Wesson dominated the low post throughout the night, fighting off double teams and beating every man that Prohm put on him. He “imposed himself,” as Holtmann put it. “So important for that to happen throughout the game.” The imposing never stopped and it peaked with about six minutes left, amid Iowa State’s late-game run. The Buckeyes grabbed three consecutive offensive boards––they grabbed 12 to Iowa State’s six overall––and the last found the hands of Wesson, who pushed toward the iron, drew a foul and made both free throws. “I imposed myself because of my preparation, coaches and teammates prepare me hard every day in practice,” Wesson said. “They push me to finish shots. When you have that, it makes for easy baskets.”
No. 34 and No. 32, NCAA tournament heroes who now have in front of them a team with the nation’s best record. Houston is 32-3. You don’t have to remind Holtmann. “They’re one of the most elite teams in the country.”