INDIANAPOLIS – Michigan is grateful to be alive in the Big Ten tournament.
Based on the way Ohio State looked in its first game of the event, the Wolverines will need to play much better against their archrival if they want to earn a spot in the league championship game.
The No. 10 Wolverines look to prevent the seventh-ranked Buckeyes from reaching the Big Ten final for a fourth consecutive season when they meet in the semifinals for the second straight year Saturday in Indianapolis.
Co-Big Ten champions in the regular season along with Michigan State, second-seeded Michigan (24-8) and third-seeded Ohio State split their first two meetings in 2011-12. The Buckeyes (26-6) won 64-49 at home Jan. 29, but the Wolverines got their revenge and snapped a six-game skid in the series with a 56-51 win in Ann Arbor on Feb. 18.
William Buford had 16 points and Jared Sullinger added 14 with 13 rebounds as the two-time defending tournament champion Buckeyes beat Michigan 68-61 in last season’s semifinals, improving to 5-0 against the Wolverines in Big Ten tournament play.
Considering the way Ohio State played during an 88-71 win over Purdue on Friday, Michigan has reason to be concerned after it needed a late rally and overtime to beat 10th-seeded Minnesota 73-69 earlier in the evening.
“We didn’t do some of the things that we typically do,” Michigan swingman Zack Novak said. “To be able to come out with a win is huge, and that’s what you gotta do at this time of the year.”
The Wolverines’ challenge only gets greater Saturday.
Coming off a pair of close road wins at Northwestern and Michigan State to end the regular season, Ohio State carried over that momentum by shooting 60.7 percent and outrebounding the Boilermakers 39-28. Sullinger had a season-high 30 points with 12 rebounds and Deshaun Thomas scored 22 as the Buckeyes posted their second-highest point total of the season, outscoring Purdue 48-35 in the second half.
“I thought our preparation coming in was good,” coach Thad Matta said. “I thought our minds were good. I think we can continue to grow. I think that these are the times where all the little things matter, and hopefully they’re continuing to pick up on those.”
Sullinger combined for a modest 27 points and 13 rebounds in two games against the Wolverines this season. His high school teammate, Michigan freshman Trey Burke, totaled 30 and 10 assists versus Ohio State.
Burke scored nine of his season-high 30 points in overtime Friday after Michigan overcame a nine-point deficit in the final 4:30 of regulation to win its third straight game overall.
“Trey played a great game,” Sullinger said. “Hopefully not (Saturday), though.”
Friday’s quarterfinal victory moved Michigan within a game of its first Big Ten championship game appearance since winning the inaugural event in 1998. That title has since been vacated because of NCAA sanctions.
“We’re not afraid of these type of moments,” said Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who scored 18 of his 20 points after halftime. “We just keep on fighting and just let the best come to us.”
Hardaway is averaging 13.8 points in five career games versus Ohio State.
Thomas, who has averaged 20.0 points on 59.2 percent shooting in his last six games, had 25 with 13 rebounds in last month’s loss at Michigan.
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