NEW YORK (AP) — Ohio State will get another chance to wrap up its season with a title, though not quite the one the Buckeyes had in mind when fall practice started.
Hey, at least they don’t have to mess with Florida this time.
Jamar Butler and Evan Turner scored 17 each, and the Buckeyes used a buckling halfcourt trap and an early 14-0 run to beat Mississippi 81-69 on Tuesday night in the NIT semifinals.
Ohio State (23-13) will play Massachusetts for the championship Thursday night, after the Minutemen knocked off Florida 78-66 and allowed a small but vocal contingent of Buckeye fans to breathe a little easier before their game even began.
“I know there’s a bunch of people in this room who are a lot more disappointed than I am,” coach Thad Matta said, when someone suggested he might have relished another chance at the team that beat Ohio State for the national championship last season.
That wasn’t the only time the Gators got the best of the Buckeyes, though. Florida romped past Ohio State to win the 2007 BCS championship, too.
“Seems like we’ve started a little rivalry with the Gators,” said Butler, who limped around the locker room with an ice pack on his ankle after the game. “But it looked like UMass was the better team tonight.”
The Minutemen have already shown incredible resiliency in coming back from second-half deficits of 12 against Akron, 22 against Syracuse and nine against the Gators just to reach the NIT championship.
Ole Miss (24-11) tried to summon some of that magic in the second half, slapping on its own trap and slowly whittling down a 27-point deficit.
“We said at halftime not to let our guard down,” Butler said. “Then we came out and let our guard down.”
The lead was 56-38 when freshman Chris Warren hit a 3-pointer and Trevor Gaskins followed with a pair of free throws — the first points by a nonstarter for Ole Miss. Seconds later, Kenny Williams converted a turnover by Butler to make it 56-45 with 12 minutes left.
The Rebels put one last run together, with Warren hitting three 3s on consecutive possessions to get within 75-68 with 1:32 remaining. But Butler, the all-Big Ten guard, scored on a driving layup to help put the game away.
“Jamar Butler is their engine, and every time they needed a play it went through him,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “That’s what seniors should do.”
Warren had 18 points for Ole Miss, which already had the second-most wins in school history despite having three freshmen and two sophomores in its regular rotation. David Huertas added 16 points, Dwayne Curtis had 12 points and 15 rebounds, and Williams scored 11.
The youthful Rebels seemed to settle down after a bleak first half, when Ohio State picked them up at the midcourt line and pressured them into turnover after turnover.
The game was tied when the Buckeyes went on their big run, getting eight of 14 straight points off turnovers and taking a 27-10 lead on a jumper by Turner with 10:20 to go.
“I just experienced a coach’s worst nightmare, to come on a big stage and start the game the way we did,” Kennedy said. “The hole we dug was insurmountable.”
Part of the problem was an incredible disparity on the boards.
Mississippi had been outrebounding its opponents by six per game and upset Virginia Tech in the NIT quarterfinals with a 46-23 advantage, but watched Ohio State pull down 50 rebounds against just 37 for the Rebels.
“That is the first time we’ve been outrebounded by double-figures all year. That’s what we do,” Kennedy said. “But they came and answered that question early.”
David Lighty and Kosta Koufos added 16 points each for the Buckeyes, who lost Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook to the NBA draft from last year’s national runner-up — a crippling blow to most programs.
Yet Ohio State still had an RPI of 42 with wins over NCAA tournament teams Michigan State and Purdue in March, and seemed to have an outside chance of making the big tournament until the final team was announced on Selection Sunday.
The Buckeyes didn’t ponder their misfortune, regrouping to rout UNC-Asheville, California and Dayton to reach Madison Square Garden. Now they have a chance to do what they failed to last season: end it with a win.