Ohio State’s Gi­ant Pro­vides Big­ger Pres­ence

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports -

AT­LANTA he Ge­or­gia Dome was so vast it made the ac­tion on the court seem diminu­tive, and the crowd noise sounded like an echo in a steel drum. But two play­ers man­aged to fill up this yawn­ing space: Ohio State’s Greg Oden and Ge­orge­town’s Roy Hib­bert en­livened an oth­er­wise flat NCAA tour­na­ment semi­fi­nal with their ex­plo­sive per­sonal en­coun­ters at the rim.

A dome was a ridicu­lously dis­torted space in which to play a bas­ket­ball game, but the 7-foot Oden and the 7-2 Hib­bert com­manded the eye with ev­ery­thing they did — even when they sat on the bench. It was as if Hib­bert and Oden played their own sep­a­rate game, to a cer­tain ex­tent one of mu­si­cal chairs, as each dealt with foul trou­ble through­out. It says some­thing about the size of your pres­ence when you’re the fo­cal point of a game even when you’re sit­ting down.

Watch­ing the foul counts on Hib­bert, who played 24 min­utes, and Oden, who played 20, was at least as grip­ping as watch­ing the score or the clock. It was a mat­ter of who could get back on the floor

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and come up big­ger, and at the end, it was the fresh­man Oden who stood just a lit­tle taller with his 13-point sec­ond-half per­for­mance that swung the game in fa­vor of the Buck­eyes, 67-60.

“I just wanted to get in there and tear the rim down,” he said.

It’s one thing to be tall. It’s an­other to be big. Oden is big — he’s not clumsy, not awk­ward, just big. He’s big in the warmups, big in the in­tro­duc­tions, big at half­time. You can’t look away from him. You can’t lose track of him.

“Clearly he is a pres­ence, a force at both ends,” Ge­orge­town Coach John Thompson III said. “He does make them dif­fer­ent just be­cause you have to be at­ten­tive to where he is.”

The duel be­tween Oden and Hib­bert fig­ured to be the dif­fer­ence maker in this game. All the talk on the clammy streets of down­town At­lanta, which swarmed with fa­nat­ics in vivid col­ors, and in the ho­tel lob­bies among coaches in mono­grammed sweat clothes and thick gold rings that said they’d won some­thing, was about which player would get the bet­ter of the other.

“I’m go­ing to have my hands full,” Hib­bert pre­dicted be­fore­hand. “I have to be bet­ter than him.”

Hib­bert, the 7-2 ju­nior, was the big­ger and older player and he counted on his ex­pe­ri­ence, three years of tute­lage, prac­tice and ad­vice from Ge­orge­town’s sto­ried alumni at the cen­ter po­si­tion: Alonzo Mourn­ing, Dikembe Mu­tombo and Pa­trick Ewing. He had worked out against them in the sum­mers, and taken home tapes of them to study, all for this mo­ment, cen­ter stage in a Fi­nal Four.

“Ob­vi­ously it’s a tra­di­tion, and I take pride in say­ing I’m a Ge­orge­town cen­ter,” Hib­bert said ear­lier this week. “It’s a lot to live up to. That’s why I work so hard, so I can be in the same light as them.”

That the game would turn on the duel be­tween the big men was ap­par­ent just af­ter the tip-off. On the open­ing pos­ses­sion of the game, Oden caught the ball in the post and im­me­di­ately backed down Hib­bert, and drew a foul. But Oden picked up two quick of­fen­sive fouls him­self, the first on a mov­ing screen at just the 19-minute 8-sec­ond mark, and the sec­ond at 17:19 when he low­ered his shoul­der on a drive to the bas­ket. That was it for the half; he went to the bench as a spec­ta­tor.

“What hap­pened?” Oden asked rhetor­i­cally. “The ref blew the whis­tle. It was just me be­ing out there and be­ing ex­cited.”

Ohio State Coach Thad Matta told Oden at half­time, “You should be well-rested.”

Af­ter that dis­ap­point­ing pre­lim­i­nary, the sec­ond half was pure ex­cit­ing brinks­man­ship be­tween the big men. Oden’s first points of the night came with a tap-in over Hib­bert with 17:53 to go. And it was on. In one daz­zling ex­change, Oden spun and hit a jump hook, only to watch Hib­bert an­swer with a spin of his own and a step-through, to cut Ohio State’s lead to 42-38.

“He shot over me a bunch of times, so you see what he can do,” Oden said.

But when Hib­bert com­mit­ted his fourth foul and went to the bench with a lit­tle more than nine min­utes left, just af­ter Ge­orge­town had tied the game at 44, Oden com­man­deered the game.

“I was at the wrong place at the wrong time some times,” a dis­heart­ened Hib­bert said af­ter­ward. “I just have to make bet­ter plays, play smarter.”

Oden seized the op­por­tu­nity in Hib­bert’s ab­sence. His shoul­der-shake and move to the rim for a layin was the first of six straight points for the Buck­eyes. “We just wanted to take ad­van­tage of Big Roy go­ing out,” he said. With 6:37 to go, Oden went tom­a­hawk­ing to the bas­ket again for an at­tempted slam over Jeff Green, who fouled him. The ball popped out, but there was some­thing em­phatic and phys­i­cally dom­i­nat­ing about the move, and his free throw gave the Buck­eyes a 51-44 lead.

Still an­other com­mand­ing Oden move ef­fec­tively squelched the Hoyas’ hopes with 2:14 to go. This one wasn’t a lunge for the rim. In­stead, Oden faced up to the bas­ket and threw in a jumper for a 58-52 lead. When Hib­bert couldn’t an­swer, miss­ing a baby hook on the other end, the game was all but over.

Other play­ers made big, even dif­fer­ence-mak­ing con­tri­bu­tions for their teams, es­pe­cially guards Jonathan Wal­lace, with 19 points for the Hoyas, and Mike Con­ley with 15 for the Buck­eyes. But it was the ac­tion on the low block that was most cap­ti­vat­ing, and it there that Oden wrested the game away in the sec­ond half.

“I thought he stepped up, made some huge plays,” Matta said.

Hib­bert, too, had made big plays, and fin­ished with the bet­ter stat line, with 19 points and six re­bounds. But in the game within the game that ev­ery­one came to see, big vs. big, the younger player had come up larger.

BY JONATHAN NEW­TON — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ge­orge­town’s Roy Hib­bert and Ohio State’s Greg Oden were stel­lar at times, but both spent con­sid­er­able stretches of time on the bench with foul trou­ble.

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