It’s probably not accurate to say that Kam Williams has been in a slump. The junior guard had scored in double figures in two of Ohio State’s last three games, but last year’s spark off the bench hadn’t really translated that into a breakout season.
Tonight, when the Buckeyes needed someone to carry the load, Williams picked his time to shine. With the Buckeyes clinging to a one-point lead against woeful Rutgers at Value City Arena, Williams scored the next 10 Ohio State points to fend off the upset challenge from the Scarlet Knights.
The last four of them came with 1:05 to play when he drilled a three-point play and the ensuing free throw to push the game out of reach just as Rutgers had tied the game at 62-all with 1:19 left. He finished with a game-high 23 points, tying a career high set twice including in the season-opening win at Navy.
“You obviously feel it, but you want to go into every game thinking you want to be aggressive and every shot’s going to go in,” Williams said of getting things rolling. “It’s a great feeling, we’ve just got to keep building on it as a team, keep riding the wave, like I said.”
Rutgers entered the game with the best defensive three-point percentage in Big Ten play at 32.6 percent. Ohio State went 5 for 12, good for 41.7 percent, but Williams was 3 for 5. It marked the first time in Big Ten play this year that Williams, who shot 51.5 percent from deep last year in conference, had hit more than half of his attempts. His three makes tied a Big Ten season high.
So on a night when Marc Loving took a blow to the head that required five stitches, JaQuan Lyle wasn’t quite himself and Jae’Sean Tate was effectively neutralized during the second half, it was Williams who shot the Buckeyes to a second consecutive Big Ten win.
“I thought Kam was terrific tonight in terms of he had energy, he was talking, he was defending, chasing screens, he was hard to guard, he had great timing to his offense,” coach Thad Matta said. “That was a very positive thing. We went to him quite a bit down the stretch there. His motor was clicking tonight, so that was good to see.”
Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said Williams was a player they were concerned about after scouting the Buckeyes.
“I think he’s terrific,” he said. “I think he’s an X-factor for them. We were really concerned about their post guys. A guy like him gets open, I thought they set some screens for him. We usually do a good job fighting through things. He’s a good player, and when he gets an open look, he got it going obviously tonight.”
An ongoing theme with this Ohio State team has been an inability to carry over success or strong play from one game to the next. This game provided another example, but while it seemed like while the Buckeyes didn’t play as sharp or as well as they did in Saturday’s win at Michigan they still came away with a second consecutive win.
So, did they build on the win or not?
“A win is a win and it’s good that we started off the game and that (led) to building a lead, but later down the stretch we made some plays that weren’t really us and were unacceptable,” junior center Trevor Thompson said. “We’ve got to get better from this, because we didn’t play good at all today.”
I asked Williams the same question.
“I think so,” he said. “Anytime you can beat them, it’s obviously going to pay positive dividends so this is a big two-game stretch. We’ve got to get this one on Saturday and just keep riding this wave.”
Matta said the Buckeyes didn’t play at the level he wanted to see for the entire game.
“We had some plays on the offensive end where just not sharp, not dialed in,” he said. “We did such a good job rebounding the ball in the first half then the second half, a couple times we had cement shoes in. we just couldn’t move to get the basketball. But, you know, there were some good things.”
The Buckeyes led by six at the half and had a 20-12 rebounding advantage. They also held a 20-14 advantage on points in the paint during the first 20 minutes.
A big part of the reason why Rutgers fought back into the game was that those numbers flipped during the second half. After halftime, the Scarlet Knights outrebounded Ohio State 26-17 and outscored the Buckeyes 18-8 in the paint.
Matta’s comment about cement shoes makes even more sense in this context.
“I myself personally made a couple unacceptable plays with allowing a man to get the offensive rebound put-back and that gave them a little bit of momentum,” Thompson said. “I’m a little bit frustrated with myself. Just turnovers. Just plays where we were down the stretch and we had to execute and we turned the ball over.”
Thompson finished with 15 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.
“Just keep executing at both ends. If we had a turnover, it was crucial that we got the stop. When we got that intentional foul, we really, really needed that stop because that would’ve been a really, really bad swing for us. Just keep executing possession-by-possession and if the worst happens we’ve got to be ready for it and move onto the next play. I think that’s something that we slowly but surely are getting better at.” – Williams, on what the Buckeyes were saying during timeouts down the stretch.