ATLANTA -- Take Greg Oden away from Ohio State and the Buckeyes still play for the national championship. Take Roy Hibbert away from Georgetown and ... the Buckeyes still play for the national championship.
With Hibbert and Oden both hampered by foul trouble, it was Mike Conley Jr. and the rest of the Buckeyes who carried Ohio State to its first national title game since 1962 with a 67-60 victory over Georgetown on Saturday night.
Conley finished with 15 points, six assists and five rebounds, while Oden added 13 points -- all in the second half -- and eight rebounds in 20 minutes.
"When he goes down with two fouls, our guys did a tremendous job stepping up," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "Michael was tremendous."
Hibbert was tremendous, too. He scored 19 points, had six rebounds and one blocked shot in 24 minutes for the Hoyas, and he more than held his own in the much-anticipated matchup with Oden.
Problem was, he spent too much time as a spectator.
So did the rest of the Hoyas.
Jeff Green, the Big East Player of the Year who had been scoring a team-best 15.8 points in the NCAA Tournament, had just nine points, and took only five shots the entire game. He did have 12 rebounds, but it wasn't enough -- not with Hibbert out. The Georgetown bench didn't contribute a single point. Not one.
At 7-2, Hibbert had two inches and two years on Oden. And the difference showed. Whenever Hibbert was in the game, Georgetown played with confidence, speed and rhythm.
"He's big," Oden said. "That's how he gets all those shots."
Without Hibbert, the Hoyas looked clunky, slow and disorganized. They couldn't even pick apart Ohio State's little guys when Oden was out, a mismatch if there ever was one.
Hibbert left the game with his third foul just four minutes into the second half. When he returned 3½ minutes later, he reeled off a quick five points and Jonathan Wallace hit a 3 to tie the game at 44 with 9:44 left.
But Hibbert picked up his fourth foul 20 seconds later, and as he was heading back to the bench, Oden was returning. Just like that, the momentum switched again.
"I had to make smarter decisions when I'm out there," Hibbert said. "I've got to be an all-around better player when it comes to knowing when to foul, when not to foul."
The Buckeyes are used to playing without Oden because he missed the first seven games of the season recovering from wrist surgery. But they're a better team with him.
"It was real tough in the first half, sitting there because I wanted to contribute," Oden said. "My teammates did really good. They stepped up and didn't allow them to get any offensive rebounds. In the second half, I just wanted to get in there and contribute."
That he did. After playing only three minutes the first half, he played all but three minutes of the second, and his mere presence seemed to energize the Buckeyes. He scored on a hook shot, and David Lighty and Jamar Butler added layups.
After a timeout, Oden took a hard foul from Green as he went up for what would have been a thunderous dunk.
"I was out for 17 minutes," Oden said, "I wanted to get in there and just tear the rim out."
Instead, he made one of two free throws for a 51-44 lead with 6:37 to play, and Ohio State was (35-3) was never in trouble again.
It was the 22nd straight victory for the Buckeyes, who will be playing for the national title Monday night for the fifth time in school history. They won the 1960 title, then lost the next two years. They also lost in the 1939 title game, the first year of the NCAA Tournament.
The loss was only the second in 21 games for the Hoyas (30-7). And it spoiled John Thompson III's attempt to lead Georgetown to a title just as his father did in 1984.
Oden has been one of the biggest stories this season, a certain No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft whenever he comes out. But he started slowly after the offseason wrist surgery, and has only recently started to show his dazzling skills.
He's struggled with foul trouble in the NCAA Tournament, and it was no different Saturday night. The game wasn't even three minutes old when he picked up his second foul, and he spent the rest of the first half on the bench.
Despite Hibbert's size advantage, Conley and the Buckeyes found a way around him. And the Hoyas couldn't exploit Oden's absence.
In just six minutes, Ohio State erased the two-point deficit it had when Oden took a seat and turned it into a seven-point lead. The Buckeyes trailed only once, 34-33, the rest of the game.
Ivan Harris started the 11-2 run with a 3-pointer, but it was Conley -- Oden's high school teammate and childhood friend -- who made the biggest plays. He scored on a layup and a short jumper, then capped the spurt with a driving layup that made it 14-7 with 11:48 to play.
Conley hit a 3 and Ron Lewis banked in a jumper to give Ohio State a 25-17 lead.
Georgetown didn't just struggle defensively. The Hoyas didn't have one of their trademark backdoor layups in the first half, and they looked for jump shots rather than trying to drive to the basket.
Hibbert was the only one doing anything inside, pulling the Hoyas within 15-14 on a rebound dunk with 7:09 left in the half and scoring four of their first six field goals. But 20 seconds later, he, too, was headed for the bench with a second foul.
The Associated Press News Service
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