There’s no way around this: tonight’s Ohio State loss is a particularly tough one to try and figure out.
How does a team lose an 11-point lead at home to a sub-.500 team this late in the season? Further, how does that same team lead by seven points and have the ball with three minutes left and lose? How does it blow a five-point lead in the final 32 seconds?
Perhaps most troubling: what might come next?
Make no mistake, this was wrapped up for the Buckeyes. Nebraska had rallied to tie the game near the midway point of the second half, but Ohio State looked to have weathered the storm and were ready to climb past the Cornhuskers in the standings and move closer toward avoiding the opening day of the Big Ten tournament.
And then, Ohio State turned the ball over four times in the final three minutes and couldn’t execute in a 58-57 home loss to the Cornhuskers.
There wasn’t a lot of postgame conversation, as you might expect. It seemed to me an example of how this Ohio State team still struggles to think the game, particularly in tough situations.
“You could say that,” coach Thad Matta said when I brought that up. “We weren’t as dialed in as we needed to be. There’s certain times when the game’s ongoing and you don’t get to talk about every play that’s coming up. We didn’t do what we needed to do, what we wanted to do down the stretch there.”
Junior forward Jae’Sean Tate offered a similar viewpoint on what went wrong in the final 32 seconds, when Ohio State blew a 57-52 lead.
“Just lack of thinking, not being on the same page,” he said. “In the second half, I felt at times we didn’t take care of the ball when we needed to and that last two-minute stretch, they hit a big shot. Jump ball, then we send them to the line with an and-one. We’ve got to be smarter. We beat ourselves tonight. We deserve it.”
The Buckeyes called timeout with 8.0 seconds left and had a chance to draw up the winning shot. It didn’t materialize, but here’s what they said they were looking for.
“Marc (Loving) off the handoff, Kam (Williams) off the down screen, Trevor (Thompson) off the post-up,” Matta said. “(Jae’Sean) picked up his dribble and they kind of blew the handoff up there.”
“They did a pretty good job of defending it,” Tate said. “We ran it right, they just blew it up. It was supposed to be a handoff to Marc, let him come off, I roll, and then a pin-down action on the other side with Kam. Tai (Webster) just blew it up and I picked up my dribble and I had to shoot it. That last little stretch there, it wasn’t just the shot. That last war, sending them to the line, getting a jump ball, turning it over, not communicating.
“When you do things like that, back to back to back to back, the outcome’s going to be very difficult to swallow.”
Here are a few numbers that really stick out to me after this game.
*Ohio State has now lost two home Big Ten games in which the opponent has hit the game-winning free throw with about 10 seconds remaining. Purdue’s winner came with five seconds left and tonight’s was with 11.
*Ohio State has now lost three home Big Ten games by a combined four points.
*Taking that further, Ohio State has lost four home Big Ten games by a combined 10 points.
*The Buckeyes have lost 10 Big Ten games, their most in Matta’s 13 seasons. It’s tied for their most since the 2003-04 season, the final one before Matta joined the program.
A key statistic from tonight’s game: Ohio State’s 18 turnovers were the most it’s given away in Big Ten play this year. Ten of them came in the second half, and the Cornhuskers had a 23-15 advantage in points off turnovers.
As mentioned above, four of them were down the stretch. Two of them were committed by Loving and one each from Tate and Williams.
“I don’t know,” Matta said when asked about that. “Not sure. I’m not trying to dodge the question. I’m like you: dumbfounded.”
JaQuan Lyle ran out of gas during the second half of Tuesday’s loss at Michigan State after missing most of the prior two weeks due to injury and family emergency. Today, he played 20 minutes and attempted just one shot, finishing with four rebounds, two points, two assists and two turnovers.
He doesn’t look much like the player who scored in double figures in seven straight conference games topped by a 22-point outburst against Michigan State on Jan. 15.
“We’re still trying to get him back in shape,” Matta said. “I thought Tuesday night he really showed fatigue in the second half so we tried to give him a few more breaks there.”
It wasn’t Lyle’s fault that Ohio State lost, but his stat line was troubling. The same goes for Williams, who was 1 for 7 from the floor for three points. And C.J. Jackson, who had four turnovers and six points in 20 minutes.
“It’s hard to hear, but nothing’s set in stone. It’s still a close race for some teams. Hopefully they get some losses and help us out, but we’ve got to try to finish out the season with streaks of wins.” – Tate, on being assured of a losing conference record this season