NEW YORK (AP) — A year removed from a loss in the national title game, Ohio State has a championship trophy to carry home.
Never mind that it’s from the NIT. Jamar Butler and his buddies couldn’t care less.
Butler had 19 points and eight assists in his final college game, leading the Buckeyes to a 92-85 win over Massachusetts on Thursday night and prompting the victory celebration inside Madison Square Garden that they couldn’t have last year in Atlanta.
The Buckeyes lost to Florida in the Final Four, but never dwelled on a snub by the NCAA selection committee that kept them from playing for another trip there. They dominated each of their four opponents on the way to New York, then had enough at the end to withstand every run the Minutemen could muster.
“This is continuing a rebuilding of the program,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “It feels good after what we went through last season.”
Kosta Koufos added 22 points in earning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. Evan Turner finished with 20 for the Buckeyes (24-13), who reached the preseason NIT title game but were run out of the Garden by Texas A&M.
Ricky Harris scored 27 for UMass (25-11), hitting three 3-pointers in the closing minutes to help the Minutemen stay close.
The last of them made it 77-75 with 3:13 left, but Othello Hunter scored moments later and after Harris missed another 3 try at the other end, Butler drained a 3-pointer from the wing to give Ohio State some breathing room.
Turner took care of things from the free throw line over the final minute and a half, helping the Buckeyes wrap up the title.
“I’ve seen this team go through a lot,” Matta said, moments before cutting down the net. “I’m happy for them.”
Etienne Brower, one of four players in the starting lineup who grew up in New York, had 17 points and 12 rebounds for UMass. Gary Forbes finished with 16 points and six assists, and Dante Milligan scored 14.
Massachusetts dominated Ohio State on the boards, outrebounding the bigger Buckeyes 49-37 — and corralling a startling 30 on the offensive end. But UMass figured to be in trouble when the frenetic pace that it so enjoys kept up in the second half: Ohio State was 15-1 this season when scoring at least 70 points.
Massachusetts put a scare into Ohio State from the moment the last notes of the national anthem were played, rushing the entire length of the court to shake hands with its stoic, startled Big Ten opponent.
The Minutemen kept racing once the ball was thrown up, forcing three turnovers in the first 2 minutes and taking a 10-2 lead on a basket by Milligan.
The Buckeyes came right back, with Hunter scoring four of his 17 points to cap a 13-2 run and take a brief lead. But the Minutemen again edged ahead, and Forbes’ 3-pointer with 3:50 left before halftime got the team’s assistant coaches so animated the referees stopped to calm them down.
Fourteen busloads of people were ferried to New York from the UMass campus in Amherst, but they represented just a fraction of the partisan crowd. The school sold its allotment of tickets quickly, and appeared to have far more dressed in its slightly darker shade of red than its counterpart from Columbus.
Now they all have to sit back and wonder whether popular coach Travis Ford will still be in town. His name has popped up as a leading candidate for the opening at LSU, which could offer the former Kentucky player a chance to return to his roots in the SEC.
One fan, wearing a UMass jersey a couple rows behind their bench, held up a sign that pleaded, “Please Stay Travis.” A couple rows down was another sign that read, “Travis Ford, Forget LSU.”