NEW YORK – A battle between two of the Big Ten’s biggest stars yet again didn’t go Ohio State’s way. Keita Bates-Diop and Tony Carr each put up 25 points in Friday night’s Big Ten tournament quarterfinal game between Penn State and the Buckeyes, but it was Carr’s assist to Josh Reaves in the final seconds that sent the Nittany Lions onto the semifinals with a 69-68 win.
And just like that, Ohio State again found itself explaining how it suffered a third loss to the same team in a season in which it has posted a 24-8 overall record and captured the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
For Bates-Diop, at least, it was a bit of a return to form. After shooting below 50 percent in the final five games of the regular season, he finished 10 of 20 from the floor while scoring his most points since he put up a career-high 35 against Illinois on Feb. 4.
“It was good to see,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “I thought he really attacked and played stronger and didn’t settle and played with more force. All those things were good to see. I thought defensively it was the best we had guarded them in three games. They’re a tough matchup for us, but I was proud of Keita for that.”
Of Bates-Diop’s 25 points, 17 came during the second half. Graduate transfer Andrew Dakich said he challenged the junior at the break.
“He was awesome,” Dakich said of Bates-Diop. “He’s Big Ten player of the year for a reason. I challenged him at halftime, saying (Josh) Reaves got under your skin. He thinks this is his matchup. If we’re going to win this game, you’ve got to be how you were the whole year. He played great. I’m very happy for him and we obviously need that to continue.”
It just wasn’t enough against a team that the Buckeyes simply didn’t have answers for. After scoring 28 and 30 points, respectively, in the prior two meetings between these teams this season, Carr again forced the issue for much of the game and kept Ohio State from ever establishing firm footing.
Afterward, Carr downplayed the significance of beating Ohio State three times.
“I would just say with the way the ball bounced,” he said. “Ohio State is a great team, but I think we’re a pretty good team too.”
Now facing a lengthy layoff before the start of the NCAA Tournament, Bates-Diop said the rest he had leading into the tournament was to his benefit against Penn State.
“I think it definitely helped,” he said. “We got a week off and I took care of my body as much as I could, so I feel pretty good right now.”
The Buckeyes still looked to be in good shape when they called timeout with 41.5 seconds left. Reaves had just hit a pair of free throws to make it a 68-67 Ohio State lead, but the Buckeyes had the ball and a chance to make it a two-possession game in the final minute when they drew up a plan.
Not surprisingly, it involved Bates-Diop.
“Get it to Keita, kind of in the short elbow area and come off a screen,” Andrew Dakich said. “They did a great job of switching off everything so it was hard to get into (the play).”
During the timeout, Penn State coach Patrick Chambers liked what he saw from his players.
“The correct word is confidence,” he said. “I didn’t see anybody sulking or bad body language. No heads were down. They were so connected.”
The result was that Shep Garner came up with a steal, setting up Reaves’ dramatic dunk.
Carr’s imprint was all over the game, but he assisted on the final shot instead of sinking it like he did at Ohio State in the first meeting between these teams this year. Guarded by Andrew Dakich, who had seen some success against him during the game, he fed Josh Reaves for the winning, uncontested dunk.
It came right after Garner had poked the ball away from Bates-Diop in the Ohio State backcourt.
“When they got the steal I was really excited,” Reaves said. “I was trying to gather myself. We go the ball, gave it to Tony and coach called a really good play. I just noticed my man wasn’t looking at me, so I took advantage of that. And Tony just shows how much of a great player he is to find an open man in a time like that. I was just fortunate enough to make the dunk.”
Penn State now becomes the fourth team to hand Ohio State three losses in the same season. However, it is the only one to do so when the Buckeyes were ranked in all three and they were unranked.
Indiana did it first in 1998, a season in which the Buckeyes finished 8-22 overall and 1-15 in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers won 83-66 at home, 74-72 in Columbus and 78-71 in the Big Ten tournament.
Wisconsin was next in 2005, when Ohio State finished 20-12 overall and 8-8 in the Big Ten. The Badgers won 72-66 at home, 64-56 in Columbus (while ranked No. 20) and 60-49 in the Big Ten tournament (also ranked No. 20).
Finally, Michigan State did it two years ago. The No. 6 Spartans won 81-62 in Columbus, 91-76 at home (while ranked No. 2) and then 81-54 in the Big Ten tournament (also ranked No. 2).
Thursday evening, Penn State’s players and coach said they were approaching this as an entirely different challenge after their two wins against the Buckeyes earlier this season. Although they were without Mike Watkins in the paint this time, the Nittany Lions didn’t look a lot different to Holtmann.
“Nothing different, nothing different,” he said. “I don’t know why they would have (changed things). They’ve beaten us twice. The same way they’ve played and attacked us.”
Without Watkins in the lineup, Ohio State immediately went inside to center Kaleb Wesson, who was named Monday to the league’s all-freshman team. He opened the game with a picture-perfect, right-handed hook shot from the right baseline.
Wesson finished with five points, making just one more field goal the rest of the way. Even without Watkins, he said, Penn State made life in the paint difficult.
“I feel like they put pressure on our guards,” he said. “That helps with stopping it from getting in the post, and their post players played pretty good post defense, denying the catch. It’s not as frustrating as (it is) just, things like that you’ve got to play through them and give your team what it needs. If it’s not you scoring, you can go out there and set screens and get offensive rebounds.”
Holtmann addressed the same point during his press conference.
“(Watkins) impacted the game, but it wasn’t as much as their other guys,” he said of the prior matchups. “And they really have great depth on the interior. At the end of the day, the guy that hurt us in the previous games hurt us.”
That, of course, was Carr.
In foul trouble for much of the game, senior forward Jae’Sean Tate played only 19 minutes in the loss. He finished with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting and had a team-high seven rebounds but finished with four fouls.
I didn’t get a chance to ask why he spent so much time on the bench. He subbed out with 7:50 to play and didn’t return until the final, three-second possession of the game. I did ask Tate if it was hard for him to get going.
“Definitely,” he said. “A couple of my fouls are tippy-touch and, not blaming it on the refs, but end of the game and Keita’s getting frickin’ tackled on a layup and mauled on a drive and it’s just (hard). I’m not blaming the refs at all, I want to put that out there, but at the end of the day we lost that game in the first half just giving up second-chance points.”
It was with Tate on the bench that Ohio State eventually made it run and took a four-point lead in the final three minutes.
“You want to play in these kinds of games, especially in Madison Square Garden. They made a great play at the end, but we didn’t lose because of that play at the end. There were probably some plays we’ll look back and (regret), but credit to them. They beat us three times and they’re moving on.” - Dakich