Two Reserves Stand Out Until Oden Gets Back In
ATLANTA I t took Greg Oden exactly 2 minutes 41 seconds on Saturday night to find his way from the center jump circle in the Georgia Dome to a seat on the Ohio State bench. Exactly who was to blame for Oden turning into a spectator is debatable. Referee Ted Valentine decided he was moving on a screen on Ohio State’s second possession, and less than two minutes later, referee Mike Kitts decided a flop by Jeff Green as Oden went to the basket was a charge.
The score was 5-3, Georgetown. A roar went up from Hoyas fans as Oden walked to the bench. Now, 6-foot-8 Matt Terwilliger and 6-9 Othello Hunter would have to guard 7-2 inch Roy Hibbert for the rest of the half. Advantage, Georgetown. “As Greg went by me to the bench, I told him this might be the night I have to put him back in during the first half with two” fouls, Ohio State Coach Thad Matta said. “Fortunately we didn’t have to do that because of the way the other guys played.”
The other guys were Terwilliger and Hunter, two of the least-heralded players on Ohio State’s star-studded roster. Terwilliger, a junior, averaged 2.2 points and 1.8 rebounds a game during the season. Hunter, a junior college transfer who initially signed with Radford coming out of high school, averaged 6.0 points and 4.6 rebounds. Statistically, this game wasn’t very much different from the rest of the season. But Terwilliger and Hunter kept their team in the game — ahead, in fact, 27-23 at halftime — until Oden could return and give people some sense of why he has been tagged as the game’s next great center as a college freshman. As well as he played in the second half, as superb as point guard Mike Conley Jr. was in the Buckeyes’ 67-60 victory, it might well have been two players who average a combined 8.2 points per game who saved Ohio State.
“There’s never any sense of panic when Greg gets in foul trouble,” Terwilliger said. “I mean, it’s happened before, so we don’t see it as that big a deal. We know we have to go in and hold the fort down until he can get back in there.”
Even so, Terwilliger admitted to being a little bit in shock when he found himself pulling his sweats off less than three minutes into the game.
“We didn’t expect that,” he said, smiling. “It’s a good thing Othello was able to come in for me after a little while because I was starting to get a little bit tired. I guess that’s where our depth really showed up.”
Terwilliger showed up big-time during one key sequence shortly after Oden took a seat. When Jeff Green, who had not yet taken a shot, tried to slash past him to the basket, Terwilliger reached in, stole the ball and found Conley streaking the other way. Conley fed Daequan Cook — who missed a layup — only to have it followed by Terwilliger, who had followed the play after making the steal.
“Matt really gave us an emotional lift there,” said Ron Lewis, who struggled with his shot all night. “He understands what he needs to do when he comes in. So does Othello. That’s why we don’t panic when Greg gets in foul trouble. We just keep playing.”
There are some people who think Ohio State actually is a better offensive team when Oden is off the floor. The Buckeyes are more apt to run, and their offense is more diverse when the ball doesn’t have to go through Oden in the low post. The big question with Oden out was controlling Hibbert, who had a six-inch height advantage on Terwilliger and five inches on Hunter.
“All we tried to do was keep him from getting the ball too close to the basket,” said Hunter, who a year ago watched Georgetown beat Ohio State in the second round of the tournament from his junior college dorm in Tampa. “It helped us when he got his second foul, too.”
No doubt it did, but the Buckeyes had a 15-14 lead when Hibbert picked up that foul with 6:48 left in the half. They had the game settled down, and it was apparent that Oden would not have to play again in the first half.
One person who wasn’t surprised by how well the Buckeyes played without Oden was Green.
“We’d seen them play without him a lot,” he said. “They played the entire overtime against Xavier without him. They played a bunch of games [seven] early in the season without him when he was hurt. We know he’s a great player, but there’s a lot more to their team than just him. They did a good job of playing defense without him.”
Oden ended up playing 20 minutes; Terwilliger and Hunter combined for 26. As intimidating a shot blocker as Oden is, Ohio State didn’t seem to suffer on defense without him.
“The thing that’s great about Greg is that he never shows his frustration,” Terwilliger said. “When he came out, it was as if it was no big deal — even though we knew it was a big deal. When we got in here at halftime, his attitude was like, ‘Okay, you guys got me this far, I can take it from here.’ And he did.”
Oden scored all 13 of his points and got all nine of his rebounds in the second half. He blocked one shot — the same number that Terwilliger and Hunter had. Conley was certainly Ohio State’s best player from start to finish, but he was well aware of the importance of the backup big men.
“We’re still a good basketball team when they have to come in for Greg,” Conley said. “We all know that because it’s been going on all season. Tonight it was just a little bigger game that they had to get it done in.”
Said Lewis: “We all know what Greg means to us. But when he’s out, we’re a quicker team. We can run the floor a little more and be effective that way. Plus, Greg knows when he gets back in we’re still going to be in the game and we’re going to get him the ball and he’ll get it done.”
A simple formula: Oden gets in foul trouble; Terwilliger and Hunter wear out the other team’s big men and then Oden comes back to finish the job.
“I was fresh for the second half,” Oden joked, surrounded by dozens of reporters in the locker room.
A few yards away, Terwilliger and Hunter were able to dress in relative quiet. Oden now has one more college basketball game to play Monday night before he likely heads off to the NBA.
He will get to play in that game largely because of two guys who will never see the inside of an NBA locker room unless they go visit their former teammate in the future.
When they do, they can remind him about the night they bailed him out in the Final Four.