- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

ATLANTA — When Ohio State’s Greg Oden found himself in early foul trouble in last night’s national semifinal against Georgetown, Mike Conley Jr. bailed out his longtime teammate and the Buckeyes.

The freshman point guard scored 15 points and deftly orchestrated Ohio State’s offense against the often-vexing Hoyas, leading the Buckeyes to a 67-60 victory and their first national title game appearance since 1962.

Conley had six assists for Ohio State (35-3), which will meet either Florida or UCLA — who met last night in a semifinal that ended too late for this edition — in tomorrow’s final at the Georgia Dome.

“I said this a million times this year: The first time I saw Michael Conley play, I thought he was the perfect point guard for our system,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “The job he’s done reading this team, I mean he has such a basketball IQ. He did some things today through scouting that I can’t explain. It’s amazing.”

Conley — one of five newcomers in the much-hailed “Thad Five” recruiting class that helped Ohio State reach its first Final Four since 1999 — hasn’t received nearly as much attention as his friend Oden. But after averaging 18 points in the last four tournament games, Conley’s significance cannot be understated.

A sublime point guard is a virtual prerequisite for a team with designs on a national championship, and Conley has done nothing in this tournament to suggest he doesn’t belong in a group that in recent tournaments includes Michigan State’s Mateen Cleaves, Duke’s Jason Williams, Maryland’s Steve Blake, North Carolina’s Raymond Felton and Florida’s Taurean Green.

All those players were tested in the crucible of the postseason, and Conley is no different. Oden, the 7-foot giant who teamed with Conley in summer leagues as early as sixth grade, stumbled early with two offensive fouls in the first three minutes, ensuring an opportunity for his friend.

With Oden parked on the bench, Conley took it upon himself to make up for the Buckeyes’ loss of firepower. And it was his 11 points that ensured Ohio State led 27-23 at halftime.

“When he came out of the game, all of us had that mind-set we had to step up our level of play,” Conley said. “Without him in the game, we lose a lot. We had to pick it up the best we could. I felt I did that in the first half.”

Conley scored six quick points, including a slick drive past Georgetown’s Jessie Sapp from the top of the key to build a 14-7 Buckeyes lead. Later in the half, he hit a 3-pointer and a slash from the wing in a two-minute span.

But his handling of the game proved equally important. Ohio State never seemed flustered by Georgetown’s willingness to milk the shot clock, instead forcing turnovers (14 total) whenever possible and finding preferable looks rather than hoisting unnecessary shots.

“We knew if we played a halfcourt game we were playing into their hands,” Conley said. “They have a big frontcourt and can block a lot of shots. We didn’t want to deal with that throughout the whole game. Our style of play is to get up and down, and once we got that established I think that really helped us out.”

With Oden back in play in the second half, Conley returned simply to running the offense. He also delivered the clinching pass with 1:41 left, bringing the ball up the floor and starting to penetrate, only to dump it to fellow freshman David Lighty for a layup and an ensuing foul shot to make it 61-52.

After the game, Oden (13 points) was peppered with questions about his foul trouble.

Sitting right next to him was Conley, who probably was more responsible for the Buckeyes’ 22nd straight victory than the big fella.

“I really don’t think about being overshadowed too much,” Conley said. “I just go out and play. Greg is deserving of the attention he gets, and I’m happy for him. I’m glad where I’m at. It’s gotten me right here. I can’t complain.”

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