There were plenty of moments worth remembering Sunday evening at Value City Arena, but Chris Holtmann singled out one in particular.
Ohio State had just shocked No. 1 Michigan State, leading the Spartans by as many as 25 points in an 80-64 win that assuredly will have the program in the national rankings Monday for the first time in nearly three years. The Buckeyes did it with a lot of hustle, hard work and the exceptional play of junior Keita Bates-Diop, who finished with a career-high 32 points.
Seconds before he was set to go live for the CBS broadcast, Holtmann was one-on-one with his star player.
“It was a special thing to see him embrace and feel this moment like he did,” the coach said. “Hopefully we can work together and create more moments. He just basically talked about how special the moment was. I just gave him a hug. I couldn’t hear it exactly but he said something to the effect of this being one of the most special moments he’s been a part of.”
He wasn’t the only older player to share such a sentiment.
“You coach for a lot of reasons and one of them is to see our older guys enjoy a moment like that,” Holtmann said. “That’s genuinely a reason we get into coaching, to see Keita and Jae’Sean and Kam and those guys embracing this moment and smiling and even a guy like Andrew. It was so rewarding to see those guys celebrate and enjoy that moment.”
In what was the longest postgame session since I’ve been covering the team, the Buckeyes were posed plenty of big-picture questions after such a signature win. Does this mean they are an NCAA Tournament team? As one of only two unbeaten teams left, are they legitimate contenders for a Big Ten championship?
Nobody was willing to go that far. And by the time the polls roll out Monday, everyone made available for interviews said the joy of this game will have faded. Ohio State will host Maryland on Thursday night before embarking on a three-game road trip next week.
This night, though, was one to remember.
“If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re on the right track,” Bates-Diop said. “I’m not going to say we’re there yet, obviously, but if we keep going like this I think we’ll be pretty good.”
After the game, senior Jae’Sean Tate said, Holtmann was emotional.
“He’s always emotional after games, especially wins,” he said. “Just the energy and to see that, all the hard work (everyone) put in, it’s no better feeling. We get in our huddle and chant. We have a chant and we hug each other and he lets us celebrate for the night and we get back to work tomorrow. We have a good Maryland team coming in Thursday. We celebrate this one today but we’ve got more work to do. It’s just the start of the Big Ten.”
Holtmann described the situation as “surreal” and admitted to being surprised by where Ohio State is right now.
“I’m surprised,” he said. “Coaches get surprised. I got surprised. I’m surprised. We’ll see, right? We don’t know at this point. We could go in the tank here for the next couple of weeks. We certainly don’t’ want this moment to define us, and we don’t want it to be the pinnacle of our season, as good as it is, and that’s the challenge for us moving forward. I watch on video and I’m so impressed with a lot of the teams that we’re going to compete against here and we’re going to have to play really well, but certainly I’m surprised with how we have played in stretches.
“I think our connection and our chemistry has been above and beyond what I maybe anticipated. You never know as a coach, what’s the buy-in going to be? You just don’t know what. Our players deserve a ton of credit because we got here as a coaching staff in June and we haven’t necessarily, we’re not tyrants but we haven’t coached them with kid gloves either and they’ve accepted and embraced that.”
Tate said the Buckeyes have a mantra they kept repeating to each other as the game progressed.
“If you watched us last year, we’ve been in situations where we’ve been up 20 and lost in the last minute,” he said. “It happened multiple times. Me, Keita and the guys that were here last year continue to have those flashbacks. We call it, don’t fold like a lawn chair. That’s all we kept saying is we are not folding today and we got it done.”
Holtmann was asked about that.
“They’re the reason that we’ve been able to pull those games out and finish those games,” he said. “As a coach you’re trying to prepare your guys as well as you can prepare them, but at the end of the day and it’s tight and it’s close, players win games. When Michigan State made a run it was somebody’s going to step up and make a play and those guys did that. I’ve been really pleased because we lost a lead this year and I think we’ve learned from that. Doesn’t mean we won’t lose a lead at some point, but we’ve learned you’ve got to keep playing, you’ve got to finish the game, you’ve got to get stops and scores and there’s a level of aggressiveness that’s required in those moments.”
Is Ohio State back? It was a question posed, half-jokingly, to the Buckeyes made available for postgame interviews.
First, Tate was asked the question. As he pondered a response with a grin, to his left Bates-Diop needled him, saying, “Say it” in a whisper.
“It’s a lot of games to go, man,” Tate said. “We want to keep striding. We want to continue to go out there and continue to prove ourselves and we’ll just have to see at the end, what there is at the end of the tunnel. At the end, we’ll let you make that judgement. You’ve seen in the past I’ve jinxed us, so I’m not going to say it.”
Then, given his chance to say it, Bates-Diop opted for, “I’ll just say we’re on the right track.”
Finally, it was Holtmann’s turn. Here’s how the exchange went when he was asked if Ohio State is back.
Holtmann: “Is there anything I can say that will stop you (from writing that)?”
When the reply was no, Holtmann said, “We’ll see. As you guys know, we’ve had some tough losses and been humbled at times this year. That’s probably not what my headline would be at my house, but you guys are much better at your job. I’m really curious to see how we respond in these next couple games. We’ll see what kind of maturity we have.”
As a Gahanna native, Michigan State forward Nick Ward came to Value City Arena last season and struggled. In his homecoming, Ward had nine points and four rebounds in a loss and coach Tom Izzo was critical of his play.
Today, after averaging 18.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in Michigan State’s last six games with double-doubles in two straight, Ward had three points on just one shot but had 10 rebounds. Izzo credited him for his play this time.
“As far as Nick Ward goes, give them credit,” Izzo said. “They did a good job on him. Give us blame: we did a poor job getting him the ball when he did kick it out and didn’t kick it back in. I was actually very disappointed last year in how Nick handled things. I was actually very pleased with how Nick handled things. He still got 10 rebounds and fought in there. We didn’t get him the ball.”
He spent much of the game matched up with Ohio State freshman center Kaleb Wesson, a Westerville South product against whom Ward played during his prep-school days.
“I felt like it was good help from my teammates and scouting,” Wesson said. “Our defensive plan was to get the ball out of his hands and I feel like we did that on him.”
Added Tate, “We limited Nick to one shot. That was a key to our win.”
Junior guard C.J. Jackson limped out of the game with 1:45 to play, but Holtmann said it wasn’t anything serious.
“Cramped up,” the coach said. “Really bad cramps. Couldn’t move. He played really hard and took a lot of pressure. He’ll be fine.”
One thing this new coaching staff has done is embraced social media in a variety of ways. Here’s a video of the Buckeyes celebrating inside their locker room:
Take down No. 1 Sparty & CELEBRATE‼️‼️@OhioStateHoops after the victory #GoBucks pic.twitter.com/RloPOV9ylU— Ohio State Buckeyes (@OhioStAthletics) January 8, 2018
“It really wasn’t anything unusual. We try to prepare for each team the same way. There’s obviously a little more because it’s the No. 1 team on our court and the media asks us questions about coach Matta and his first year beating the No. 1 team and ‘oh is it going to happen again?’ Well, it did happen again, so little stuff like that. For the most part we kept things the same.” – Bates-Diop, on the week of preparation.