PORTLAND, Ore. – It had to go into overtime, didn’t it?
Eleven seasons ago, Thad Matta had little interest in facing his former school, Xavier, in the NCAA Tournament for multiple reasons. One, the fanbase was angry for his departure and certainly would let him know that. Two, the Musketeers provided plenty of matchup problems for the Buckeyes.
It took Ron Lewis’ season-saving shot and overtime for Matta to exorcise that demon, and he was nearly three years removed from that job. Today, against the team he was coaching not even six months ago, Chris Holtmann had the same reasons to be wary of what lie ahead at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Butler’s talented guards were going to present the Buckeyes problems. Then, couple that with the fact that there was certainly a percentage of the Butler fanbase eager for revenge, and you’ve got a recipe for a rough afternoon.
But for 36 minutes, the Buckeyes weathered it all. Ohio State’s 15-point lead with 3:46 seemed secure because, really, all such leads seem that way. But in the Butler huddles, there was still a sense of confidence.
“On the defensive end, we continued to get stops,” Butler senior forward Kelan Martin said. “That led to transition offense. We got easy buckets and then we just kept chipping at it, chipping away at it.”
The end result was a 67-66 overtime win against the Buckeyes in a game that had five lead changes and two ties in the final 5:16. It left Holtmann blaming himself for not putting his players in the best possible positions to win, his players lamenting a lack of aggression in key moments and Butler celebrating an impressive comeback.
Permeating it all was the specter of Holtmann’s situation. Junior Keita Bates-Diop said the Buckeyes didn’t try to do anything extra to win the game for their coach, and Holtmann agreed with that assessment.
“I don’t think they were trying to do anything for me,” he said. “I really don’t. Players want to win regardless. They don’t care about all this. They really wanted to win. I left, there’s no reason for them to want to win one for me.”
The gym wasn’t even half full, but the majority of those in attendance were there for Butler. Bulldogs coach LaVall Jordan said there were more than 500 alumni in the stands, and they occupied a full section opposite the Butler bench.
That helped build a sense of inevitability once Butler started its comeback.
“I do think that the crowd and the fact that we lost the lead quickly affected us,” Holtmann said. “We did not play with the poise that we needed to, and they were loud. Obviously it was emotionally charged for the fanbase. I do think that affected, but again, we’ve got to get better in that situation. I don’t think it was anything beyond they were down 15, they made a run and they have a lot of fans here and they were loud. For the fans it was more, but I don’t think for our players, they didn’t play with maybe the necessary poise because it was Butler. We’ve just got to be better in that situation.”
Holtmann had the chance to shake hands with most of his former players after the final buzzer, and sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin said Holtmann told him that he was proud of him and that he loved him. Before the game, Holtmann said he encouraged his wife, Lori, to say hello to old friends from Butler after she expressed her apprehension about doing so.
As he came out for the start of the game, Holtmann was stopped by a few Butler board members who greeted him warmly. He took the court with a smile on his face, even as a solitary boo rang out during his walk.
“Honestly, I’m at a loss for words at how to explain it,” Holtmann said of the postgame handshake line. “My responsibility is to our guys and we tried to prepare them at the highest level to play as well as we could play and I’m disappointed that I didn’t do a better job late with them. It was obviously an emotional game. They have a lot of fans here. The obvious things along with the comeback elevated the energy in the room.
“At the end of the day I’m not sure we responded as well as we needed to, but those guys know how I feel about them. We went through a lot of stuff together, just like we’ll go through a lot of stuff here with this group. I took a moment to say a few things to them, but it was such a dramatic finish that you don’t have a lot of time.”
There are plenty of reasons why Ohio State couldn’t hold on, but here’s perhaps the biggest one. The Buckeyes turned the ball over 24 times – 11 in the first half, 10 in the second and three in overtime. Junior C.J. Jackson had a game-high seven, five of which came in the first half.
“They were just very physical in the beginning,” he said. “It took me a second to adjust to what they were doing but five turnovers (in one half) is too much on my part. That’s too much for any point guard and that’s all on me.”
His final two were both critical. Jackson stepped out of bounds with 4.3 seconds left in regulation with the game tied, denying the Buckeyes even a chance at winning before overtime. Then he turned it over on the first possession of overtime when Baldwin stole the ball on a play he said he recognized from having played for Holtmann.
The coach didn’t deny that, but said that wasn’t the only reason why.
“Yeah (they knew it in advance), but we ran a poor lead there and we made a sloppy pass,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job taking care of (the ball). We were just so careless with the ball today. They knew the side-out that we were running. They did know that.”
Jae’Sean Tate, who fouled out, had five turnovers, as did Keita Bates-Diop.
“Well, our guard play has to improve in terms of handling the ball, but I’ve got to just find a way to make it easier on some of those guys when we’re seeing that kind of pressure,” Holtmann said. “It’s no secret that ball-handling is an issue for us. We’ve just got to get better at it. It hurt us having JT out, but they had a good player out as well, just because he is another primary ball-handler for us.”
In the second half, Ohio State did not make a basket during the final 5:31 as Butler started stringing stops together.
“I just think we probably got a little too passive, but that’s always a delicate balance between aggression and passive when you have a lead like that,” Holtmann said. “I think for us if we could’ve strung together a couple more stops defensively you can close out the game and we weren’t able to do that, but some of the free baskets that we gave them off of our turnovers we just can’t do or some of the wasted possessions we had. We were looking for a lineup that we felt like could finish the game effectively. We were having a little trouble getting it inside as much as we would’ve liked to, so we went a little smaller with Keita.”
Said Bates-Diop, “We stopped being aggressive in the last few minutes. We stopped attacking and taking questionable shots and turning the ball over. They started hitting tough shots at the end. Credit to them.”
Sophomore center Micah Potter saw four minutes of early playing time but did not return to the game. Upon his removal from the lineup, he pounded his white towel on his seat in frustration, and after one timeout assistant coach Ryan Pedon pulled him aside for a few extra words of encouragement.
Holtmann said the ankle injury that cost him the tournament opener against Gonzaga kept Potter off the floor today.
“Micah’s ankle was bothering so I didn’t feel comfortable playing him,” Holtmann said.
“I thought they sped us up and played much more frenetic in the last three minutes and we really struggled with that. It’s my responsibility to get our guys to handle that better and we just did not handle it better, really in the last 4-5 minutes. Ultimately that’s on me. I didn’t feel good about how we responded, but I give Butler a lot of credit for making the plays there late. We contributed to it, but they certainly made some plays. Overall I wish I would’ve put our guys in a little bit better position at the end of the game.” – Holtmann