PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Seven members of this Ohio State team were in uniform the last time the Buckeyes faced Rutgers. That dark date in program history came in the first round of the Big Ten tournament last season and marked the end of the Thad Matta era with a dismal loss.
Chris Holtmann wasn’t there. But as he prepared his team for Sunday’s night’s game at the Rutgers Athletic Center, he rolled out a montage of clips from that defeat featuring Buckeyes being beaten to loose balls and offensive rebounds. The message was clear: against a perennial Big Ten bottom-feeder whose results don’t often match the effort level, there can be no lack of hustle from this team.
With that in mind, Ohio State (15-4, 6-0) shook off a slow start and looked headed for a historic defensive performance before the law of averages eventually allowed Rutgers (11-8, 1-5) to set a somewhat-respectable final score. The Buckeyes won 68-46, moving back into a first-place tie with Purdue atop the conference standings and giving them a five-game winning streak that figures to have them back in the national rankings on Monday afternoon.
“We got a good win tonight,” junior guard C.J. Jackson said.
With D’Angelo Russell and Brooklyn Nets teammate Caris LeVert — a Pickerington Central product — on hand watching, Ohio State turned the tables on the Big Ten’s best defensive team. Rutgers entered the night holding teams to 61.7 points per game, but nearly 27 minutes in the Buckeyes had held the Scarlet Knights to only 18 points after a four-point play by Kam Williams made it a 48-18 lead with 13:47 to play.
To that point, Rutgers was 7 of 42 (16.7 percent) from the field. Keita Bates-Diop, conversely, already had six field goals of his own.
“I’m just playing the game, trying to get one stop at a time and one score at a time,” Bates-Diop said. “It did feel weird because it felt like they couldn’t score for a long time.”
With most of his starters on the bench, Holtmann saw Rutgers finally get hot and mount a rally when it hit five straight shots for a 14-0 run in the span of 3:02 to make it 48-32. The Scarlet Knights, who were without injured key swingman Mike Williams, made 10 of their final 17 shots but still only finished at 28.8 percent from the field — the worst for an Ohio State opponent since Youngstown State made 21.0 percent in the 12th game of the 2016-17 season. The 46 points are the fewest for Rutgers since scoring 26 in a loss to Virginia on Nov. 29, 2014.
At one point during the first half, Rutgers had gone 8:26 without a field goal, managing only two free throws during the stretch. In the process, the Buckeyes turned a 9-8 deficit into a 26-11 lead.
“We knew they were going to start throwing in some threes and making some open looks, and they did,” Holtmann said. “I wish we would’ve done some things to make it a little harder for them.”
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