Ohio State’s Giant Provides Bigger Presence
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
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.
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.