BOISE, Idaho — For an Ohio State team that had been through so much, Saturday night’s loss bore a certain air of familiarity. It had little to do with the final outcome or the stakes of the game, but it had plenty in common with the narrative the Buckeyes had developed in their first year with coach Chris Holtmann.
Counted out early and often, Ohio State gathered itself, made a remarkable run to put itself on the precipice of something amazing, only to come up short in the end. The sequence of events was as applicable to this specific game as it was for the entire season.
“It was an unremarkable start to this game, but it was a remarkable season, and it was remarkable in the way that this group climbed back and gave ourselves a chance,” Holtmann said from the locker room. “I think that was a microcosm of what this team and this season has been about. It’s been as special a group in terms of finding ways to reach its potential — it’s been as special a group as I’ve been a part of.”
It would have been hard to draw up a more challenging start for the Buckeyes against Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs took a 15-0 lead as Ohio State had three layups roll around the rim and out, and flashbacks to the 27-point loss suffered at the hands of the Bulldogs in November came crashing to the surface.
That loss was the first of the season and seemed to prove the level of rebuilding necessary for Holtmann. Instead, roughly a week later, Ohio State opened Big Ten play with a pair of wins to kick-start a streak of 13 wins in 14 games, putting the Buckeyes in sight of a Big Ten title as junior Keita Bates-Diop established himself as the conference player of the year.
All of this came after six straight seasons of diminishing win totals, the latter two ending with no NCAA Tournament appearance and including the departure of six players via transfer. The struggles had tested the mettle of those who stuck it out.
“It was ironic that today really defined my career because we go down 15-0, have two losing seasons and transfers, it’s like, how do you respond?” fifth-year senior Kam Williams said in the locker room. “I’m proud of the way we responded today, even though we didn’t come out with the win.”
As the wins piled up and larger goals became realistic possibilities, the expectations changed. The same happened as Ohio State turned an 11-point halftime deficit into what would become a five-point lead with six minutes to play against Gonzaga, putting a berth in the Sweet 16 firmly on the menu.
And then, the team that wound up losing four of its final seven games allowed an 11-0 run that pushed the game out of reach.
“That pretty much embodies this entire year, proving people wrong, but obviously we can’t do that against a good team in the tournament,” Bates-Diop said. “We can’t spot a team 15.”
Still, the Buckeyes took it to the final buzzer, when Bates-Diop swished a three-pointer from within the March Madness logo at center court to set the final score.
“People were counting us out just based on last year,” junior C.J. Jackson said. “We knew that coming in. We have a lot of talent in this locker room that I don’t think a lot of people understood that we had.”