Conley, Buckeyes Speed Ahead
Floor Opened Up for the Fast-Moving Guard After Oden Went to Bench
ATLANTA, March 31 — Before Greg Oden finished his slow walk to the Ohio State bench Saturday night, Mike Conley stopped him. Conley yelled at Oden, his high school teammate and best friend, for drawing his second foul less than three minutes into the game.
But he also found a glimmer in Oden’s removal. Before the game restarted, Conley steeled himself while also reassuring Oden.
“When you get back in the game, we’ll be up by four,” Conley said. “Because I’m going to do something special.”
Then Conley backed up his message, carrying the Buckeyes on his slight shoulders for nearly the entire first half as Oden watched. He scored 11 of his team-high 15 points in the first half of Ohio State’s 67-60 victory over Georgetown in the national semifinals, turning Oden’s absence from an obstacle into a blessing.
When Oden left the game with 17 minutes 19 seconds left in the first half, the Buckeyes trailed by two. When he returned after halftime, Ohio State, just as Conley had promised Oden, led by four, 27-23.
While acknowledging the obvious — that the Buckeyes are better with Oden in the game — Conley admitted he “sort of” likes it when Oden sits. The floor opens up, which allows him to unleash his world-class quickness. He also plays with more energy, knowing he needs to provide more scoring and confident that, when Oden returns, he can save energy by throwing passes to him inside.
“He feels like there’s a heavier load on his shoulders,” OSU freshman Daequan Cook said.
Said Conley: “It’s conscious. I try to be more aggressive when he comes out of the game to keep my team in the game. When he’s in the game, it’s a little different. The lane gets real clogged.”
The Buckeyes opened the game for Conley further by running picks for him with their big men, assistant coach Alan Major said. The Buckeyes noticed Georgetown would switch on the screens, which left a slower Hoya helpless to stop Conley’s quicksilver drives to the lane.
Georgetown eventually stopped switching, but it didn’t matter; Conley blew by Jessie Sapp just as easily. Conley’s grace disguises his speed, his movements so fluid it seems as if he’s moving in slow motion. But then you realize he’s running by everybody, using the same long strides as his father, an Olympic triple jump gold medalist.
With just under five minutes remaining, Conley displayed his swiftness. He stole the ball from Jeff Green, then weaved his way downcourt as Sapp tried to catch him. He sliced through the lane, drew Patrick Ewing Jr. off of David Lighty, then shoveled a pass to Lighty.
With Ewing behind him, Lighty rose for a layup, which Ewing tried to block but only fouled him. The three-point play stretched OSU’s to nine, breaking the Hoyas’ back.
Sapp said during the week he looked forward to the challenge of guarding Conley. When informed of Sapp’s eagerness Friday, Conley shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said, “That’s cool,” a typical response. Throughout the tournament, nothing has frazzled Conley, who “has a calm spirit about him,” Major said.
“Something might be wrong with me,” Conley said. “I don’t get nervous.”
After the final buzzer, Oden and Conley had a conference again on the floor. Oden hugged Conley at midcourt, and this time, flashing a rare smile, he delivered the message.
“We’re there, Mike.”
Ohio State’s Mike Conley has a clear shot at the basket after getting past the Hoyas’ Patrick Ewing Jr. Conley finished with 15 points.