BOISE, Idaho – For a time, it looked like this could become the final game of Jae’Sean Tate’s career at Ohio State and the senior was powerless to stop it.
After picking up his fourth foul in the NCAA Tournament first-round game against South Dakota State on Thursday at Taco Bell Arena, Tate checked out with 15:47 to play and the lead at 50-48. He didn’t return until 7:09 remained and the lead was 65-56, but when Tate was whistled for his fifth foul with 2:47 to play he could only watch as the Jackrabbits tied the game not even a minute later.
Suddenly the upset felt like a distinct possibility, and all Tate could do was watch. Reduced to a cheerleader, Tate said he wasn’t worried about this being the end.
“It wasn’t hard,” he said inside the locker room. “It was frustrating, but these guys, everybody on our team is so important. It was just like that saying, next man up. Every lineup out there, every guy contributed and that’s why were successful. Every guy had an important role and when I got in foul trouble down the stretch, Doc (Andrew Dakich) and Andre (Wesson) did a wonderful job in there. And C.J. (Jackson) and Keita (Bates-Diop), the way they led, that was big and we’re going to need that going on.”
In his first NCAA Tournament game since his freshman year, Tate was limited to 21 minutes but still finished with eight points and seven rebounds. As the final seconds ticked off and the outcome was assured, Tate was embraced by sophomore Micah Potter, who offered a few words to the upperclassman from the bench.
“I was just saying, ‘Way to be tough and way to stick to it,’ ” Potter said. “He’s our senior leader, our senior captain and he’s our guy for energy. He’s the guy we look to for advice. He’s the guy we look to for everything. I was just making sure, ‘Hey, even though you fouled out, we got this dub because of your leadership all year.’ I was just congratulating him and thanking him for it.”
It was a marked contrast to a similar interaction Potter had with a senior during last year’s postseason. Out of the final media timeout in the Big Ten tournament against Rutgers, Potter walked to the bench as the huddle broke and pointed across the court to the team’s lone senior, Marc Loving.
He then pounded his chest, imploring him to bring some heart for the final minutes. It didn’t happen, and although Loving said afterward that he had no regrets if that marked the end of his Ohio State career, it was a memorable exchange from a freshman to a senior.
“JT’s my guy,” Potter said. “I can’t imagine how frustrating it was for him, being a senior and not being in the tournament the last two years with no one expecting us to do anything close to this this year. With his leadership all year and wanting to prove something, he’s got a big chip on his shoulder. That’s the kind of guy JT is.
“I just wanted to make sure: ‘Look, even though the refs are taking you out of this game, we still need you. You’re still our leader.’ He did a great job with that.”
Of the nine Ohio State players to see action against the Jackrabbits, six were making their NCAA Tournament debut and five had been in such a locker room before. Among them was freshman guard Musa Jallow, who as has been oft-discussed this season should technically be a senior in high school this year.
He saw seven minutes of action, all in the first half.
“It was just kind of amazing how life can take you,” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to this day since I was a little kid just starting to play basketball. It was pretty awesome to see everything working out and paying off.”
Jallow did not play in the Big Ten tournament loss to Penn State, the first time all season he was a healthy scratch. In the final three games of the regular season, Jallow played a combined 14 minutes.
The lack of recent action kept him fresh, he said.
“It’s probably easier because I don’t have as many miles on my legs and I’m in the gym every day just waiting for my moment to show it off,” he said. “I’ve been ready.”
Wesson went down with a scary knee injury late in the first half, but shook it off to play 28 minutes off the bench. He was 0 for 6 from the floor, missing five three-point attempts, but had three rebounds, one assist, one block, one steal and no turnovers while often helping guard South Dakota State lynchpin Mike Daum.
After the game, he sat in front of his locker with a heavy ice wrap on his right knee but said he’ll be fine to play Gonzaga on Saturday.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “A little sore, but I’m good. I jumped and I landed and I saw he was trying to go right so I went to go right and my knee just buckled in. At that point (once you keep playing) adrenaline just takes over and you don’t really feel it anymore.
“I’ll be fine.”
Ohio State fans weren’t exactly the vocal majority against South Dakota State. Buckeyes fans were largely confined to a few bands in the vicinity of the Ohio State bench, and as the game progressed neutral fans, predictably, started cheering for the upset.
But Ohio State found some issues even inside its cheering section, where a half-dozen Michigan fans in maize and blue held a sign reading, “Michigan fans 4 South Dakota State.”
Dakich, who spent the last four seasons playing for the Wolverines, saw it.
“I was like, ‘Oh, God,’ ” he said with a laugh. “Right behind our bench, too. They couldn’t go anywhere else, but it was pretty funny.”
Jallow, too, said he noticed them. Sort of.
“I didn’t read it, but I saw Michigan and was just like, ‘Whatever. I’m not going to read that,’ ” he said. “Wow. It’s a big rivalry. It’s a big deal.”
They didn’t spent much time actually guarding each other, but the stars for their respective teams took their turns matching each other blow-for-blow.
At the half, Daum and Bates-Diop each had 17 points. The Summit League player of the year finished with a game-high 27 points, but Bates-Diop had 24 and the win.
“It was weird because it wasn’t really a battle because we weren’t really guarding each other for the most part, but I started to notice we were going back and forth,” Bates-Diop said. “That’s kind of what you come to see when you see players like that coming together. It was exciting.”
“Bates-Diop is a great player,” Daum said. “For him to be able to shoot the way he does at the height makes him a tough guard, and his ability to take you off the dribble. When I was on him I tried to keep my chest in front of him and contest the three-pointers he was taking.”
In the second half, Bates-Diop went 1 for 6 overall and 1 for 5 from three. Daum was 3 for 10 overall and 2 for 5 from three.
“He was good early,” Holtmann said of Bates-Diop. “I thought he settled a little bit late, but he was good early. Proud of him. He looked a little fresher, too. It’s a big difference. You can see it in his lift. We’ve got to keep him fresh for Saturday.”
“They sagged off of certain guys on our team and made it hard to catch it, but hats off to Kam and C.J. making big plays down the stretch when I couldn’t get the ball,” Bates-Diop said.
13 – turnovers by South Dakota State
18 – points Ohio State scored off those 13 turnovers
10 – turnovers the Jackrabbits averaged this season
18 – points scored by Ohio State on the fast break
82.1 – percentage of the game’s total points that were scored by six players
35.2 – percentage of the total number of players to see game action those six players represent
“Ask our fanbase to watch 15 of South Dakota State’s games and tell me if there’s a better way to guard them. And then have them call every high-major coach that they played and every coach in their league and once they do all that research and they come back, if there’s a better way, we’ll do it. We heard it over and over: there’s one way to play (him). You’re going to lose the game if you don’t play this way. I didn’t think the switching hurt us at all.” – Holtmann, when presented with the observation that Ohio State fans weren’t happy seeing Dakich occasionally guarding Daum.