BOISE, Idaho — The celebration was still going strong nearly half an hour after the first-round NCAA Tournament victory was sealed when an oversized bracket was carried into the Ohio State locker room to make it even more official.
Coach Chris Holtmann asked for suggestions for who should ceremonially move the rejuvenated Buckeyes to the second round, and the screams were unanimous for the guy who had shot them there down the stretch.
Kam Williams emerged from his spot in the corner, moved Ohio State’s name to the next line in the field and then busted out a few dance moves. Then he went right back to reliving the 4-point play that broke a late tie and propelled his team to an 81-73 win over South Dakota State on Thursday at Taco Bell Arena.
“This is right up there, it may be No. 1 [in my career],” Williams said. “I give the coaching staff the credit. They called the play for me. They had enough confidence in me down the stretch. And as hard as I worked, my confidence is never going to be shot.
“As soon as I let it go, I felt like it was going to go in.”
The jumper from the right wing dropped cleanly through the rim, despite Williams drawing contact on the shot after coming around a perimeter screen.
The Buckeyes call that play “Splash.” And it had been in the playbook for all of two days before it was needed in the most important moments of this unexpectedly impressive season for the program.
Ohio State gets splashy
The Buckeyes expected that they would be firing up more 3-pointers than usual with an undersized South Dakota State defense packing the paint. And they knew that when the game got tight, there was one guy who wouldn’t shrink away from the pressure.
So Holtmann and assistant Ryan Pedon took a similar action they had drawn up on the sidelines earlier this season against Rutgers to get Williams a look at the basket and added “Splash” as a call on Tuesday. It worked exactly the same — right down to Williams drawing a foul while burying the jumper.
“We just put it in,” Holtmann said. “We were talking and game-planning, and we knew how they guarded and it worked great. It was Coach Pedon’s call, he’s the one that made the call. We have different variations of it and different ways we can get into it, but Coach Pedon and I were thinking we needed to do something for Kam based on how they could guard us to get him an open 3.
“Those minutes before, I was like, ‘Hey, somebody has got to be ready to make a play out there.’ We’ve got 2 minutes and we were too tentative. … We felt like Kam was the guy that had the sparkle in his eyes in that moment. He wanted to be in that moment, and he answered the bell.”
‘Players win games’
Before the bracket appeared to cap off the party, Pedon had been in the middle of the action.
Williams, of course, was the one who executed on the court. But the Buckeyes had given just as much credit to the guy who under pressure chose to dive into the deep end from the sideline.
“We all mobbed Coach Pedon, because he’s the one that made the call,” guard Andrew Dakich said. “I mean, I’m not surprised. If anyone is going to hit that shot, it’s Kam.
“He lives for those moments.”
After a lead that had been as much as 13 points dwindled to nothing, the time for something special arrived when the Buckeyes got the ball back with just less than 2 minutes left in the game.
Holtmann turned to Pedon. And Pedon turned to Williams, who curled around a screen from Keita Bates-Diop and took a pass from Andre Wesson.
“We put it in two days ago in prep for this game, and Kam delivered,” Pedon said. “We dialed him up and he delivered.
“We all believe this as coaches: It’s a players’ game. You can put plays in to put players in position to do what they do best, but Kam Williams hit that shot. Coach Holtmann didn’t hit that, none of our coaches hit that. Kam did, and he deserves all the credit for it. He’s a competitor and it was a heck of a shot.”
Back in the Dance — and the second round
It will be remembered as the game-winner, even though 90 seconds were left on the clock for Ohio State to manage.
That felt almost like a formality, though, and the Buckeyes closed out their victorious return to the Big Dance with an 11-3 run that also included 3 more free throws from Williams. And based on what he gave Ohio State when it needed him most, he more than earned the right to put the finishing touches on the postgame party as well.
“I’m just trying to take this time right now and take the win in stride, just get ready for Saturday now,” Williams said. “Our next goal is Gonzaga, and that’s what I have to be focused on.
“But, you know, it is a special moment.”
And “Splash” was exactly what Ohio State needed to stay in the NCAA Tournament pool.