WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — When it ended, after Ohio State had taken over first place in the Big Ten by ending Purdue’s 19-game winning streak with a 64-63 victory on Wednesday night, what had been a raucous Mackey Arena turned quiet as footsteps on a snowy country road.
The hallway leading to the Buckeyes’ locker room, meanwhile …
“Ohio State is back,” sophomore guard Andre Wesson announced to anyone who would listen. Or could listen, which was not easy considering the hoopla happening all around.
Back from where? Try pessimism and irrelevance.
Freshman Musa Jallow
Sophomore Andre Wesson
Coach Chris Holtmann
Feb. 7 was circled before this Season of Surprise began. Tabbed as a barometer game when the Big Ten schedule was released, Ohio State playing Purdue in Mackey would show how far the Buckeyes were from being competitive in the conference, which is a nice way of saying they were expected to be bottom-feeders.
Back then, when Keita Bates-Diop was still a mere mortal and the media mostly knew Chris Holtmann as that coach with double “N’s” in his name, the question was not how good but how bad the Buckeyes would be. Any suggestion they might challenge for the Big Ten title was the crazy talk of Ohio State players. Actually, just one OSU player: We’re looking at you, Andrew Dakich.
Otherwise, the Buckeyes balked at predicting anything too optimistic. With good reason. The season set up as a blind date with body odor. If OSU could just ride it out without retching, the stench of a losing season would be over soon enough.
Maybe games against early-season softies and Big Ten punching bags Illinois, Iowa and Rutgers would get Ohio State close enough to .500 to deflect attention from what was going to happen at Purdue.
The Boilermakers would be a litmus test — for how badly Ohio State would get lit up. At least that was the preseason outlook. Circle the date. Request a last meal. Take a drag on the cigarette. Ready, aim … uh … the gun jammed.
And has stayed jammed. What was supposed to be a check of the dipstick showing the Buckeyes a quart low became a measuring stick the other way. Entering the game against No. 3 Purdue, the question was how good are the No. 14 Buckeyes?
Answer: #BuckeyesR4real. Ohio State won the battle for Big Ten supremacy by hanging tough when things looked grim. And a Big Ten championship is within reach. Really.
The dream of a season has not been lost on Ohio State senior Jae’Sean Tate, who has pinched himself so many times to make sure it’s really happening that he requires a daily ice bath to nurse his self-inflicted joy.
“Definitely sometimes,” Tate said of sharing a stunned expression with teammates that screams “Can this be real?”
“I kind of look at it like, wow, we’re actually doing this,” he continued. “But we’ve got to keep moving forward and taking care of the task in front of us. After it’s all over, hopefully we can have a fairy-tale ending.”
Every fairy tale, however, has an ogre to contend with, which is where Purdue entered the story. The Boilermakers presented a monster challenge, beginning with 7-foot-2, 290-pound monstrosity Isaac Haas, who is to normal humans what the LeVeque Tower is to a three-bedroom ranch. Did the Buckeyes have anyone to topple this behemoth who lives above the beanstalk? Not really. Haas, being Sasquatch without fur, dropped in 18 points, but the senior missed a fall-away 12-footer at the buzzer that would have won it. Big things fall hard.
Ohio State, meanwhile, came up big in little ways. Wesson scored a career-high 13 points and freshman Musa Jallow had 10 on 3-of-4 shooting from three-point range. But the biggest reason Ohio State’s season hasn’t sunk below sea level is KBD, who hit the go-ahead, put-back basket with 2.8 seconds left. Or as Buckeye Nation better knows him: TGFKBD (Thank Goodness For Keita Bates-Diop). From there, add a roster of unselfish role players and a coach who has pushed the right buttons.
Ohio State is on top. And the bottom is nowhere in sight.