MADISON, Wis. -- The occasion called for euphoria, but there was only relief for Ohio State.
As Buckeyes coach Thad Matta walked to the locker room, minutes after recording only his second win at the Kohl Center, he passed assistant Greg Paulus and said, "I just want to get the hell outta here." Asked to describe the mood in the locker room after the 59-58 victory over No. 14 Wisconsin, OSU senior guard Aaron Craft exhaled.
"Ahhh," he said. "Just like that."
Two teams mired in misery took the court Saturday morning and played a mostly miserable game, marked by mistakes and the frequent whistles of an overzealous officiating crew. Ohio State left the building as the slightly less miserable team after winning in an environment that suddenly isn't so hostile. Wisconsin has dropped three consecutive home games for the first time under coach Bo Ryan.
What looked like a showdown of two national elites a month ago, when Ohio State ranked third and Wisconsin fourth in the polls, became a survival slog between teams that had combined to go 2-8 since Jan. 9. Both had suffered historic setbacks Wednesday night, as Ohio State fell to Penn State for the first time at Value City Arena and Wisconsin lost to Northwestern for the first time at the Kohl Center.
And both had been called out by key players.
"This is embarrassing," Ohio State senior wing Lenzelle Smith Jr. said after the Penn State loss. "Every other team in our conference is laughing at us right now." A day later, Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker didn't mince words, either, telling reporters, "We're being soft. We're being unaggressive. We're being the team that's lacking in all the categories that you need to win."
Neither Smith nor Dekker triggered a turnaround for his team Saturday, combining to go 3-for-13 from the field (Smith did have a game-high 10 rebounds). Smith nearly played the goat, missing a layup with Ohio State up a point and nine seconds to play. He grabbed the rebound but traveled after being undercut by teammate Amir Williams.
"If he's going to take that shot, he's got to finish that shot," Matta said.
"First thing I'm thinking is, 'Aw, here we go again, man,'" Buckeyes forward LaQuinton Ross said. "When everything is going so good, then stuff starts going so wrong."
Just three days earlier, the Buckeyes had seen three-point leads vanish in regulation and in overtime against Penn State, falling 71-70 on a D.J. Newbill jumper. They once again needed a stop. This time, they got one.
Matta expected Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson to take the final shot ("What has he had, like 19 game winners in his three years here?”). Ohio State put its best defender, Craft, on Jackson and had Ross help on the left side. Jackson, with nowhere to go, eventually passed to Dekker, whose off-balance shot caromed off of the rim.
"LaQuinton did a phenomenal job keying the gap, not letting him get back to his left hand," Craft said. "It's knowing the scouting report. And closing out well on Dekker. A lot of the credit's got to go to Q. I just tried to keep him in front. LaQuinton did the rest."
The Buckeyes held a players-only meeting Thursday in which many spoke. They had a similar session last year after a loss to Illinois and went on to win six of their next seven games.
Craft sensed a better vibe Saturday, even as the Buckeyes endured lengthy scoring droughts and committed 23 fouls, against just 14 for Wisconsin. Ross nearly lost his head after receiving his fourth foul with 7:35 to play, but composed himself.
"When we got in the huddle today, it was completely different," said Craft, who went scoreless for 36 minutes before scoring seven consecutive points in the closing minutes. “You could see in each other's eyes that we wanted to do this for each other."
A players meeting might now be on Wisconsin's agenda. The Badgers need something to spark them. Dekker's comments clearly did not.
The Badgers failed to record a field goal in the final 6:42. After strong foul shooting counteracted shaky offense in the first half, Wisconsin missed 8 of 14 attempts from the line in the final 20 minutes. Even the lone bright spot, freshman forward Nigel Hayes, who led Wisconsin with 17 points, pointed to the fact that he missed more free throws (6) than he made (5).
"We've got to change something," senior guard Ben Brust said. "We're going to get back at it. We can't sulk. We've got to move on."
Both teams have reached the midpoint of the Big Ten grind. Wisconsin's once-promising season is on the brink.
Ohio State earned the right to celebrate, and to breathe a little easier. But not for long.
"That's the one thing you can't allow yourself to do as a coach, or even as a player," Matta said. "You exhale all your breath and relax."
The misery could return if Ohio State doesn't show up Tuesday night at Iowa.
No wonder Matta wanted to get out of here so quickly.