OMAHA, Nebraska – The final result was a mere formality, and the fans were heading for the exits when Duane Washington let out a primal scream from the Ohio State bench.
After letting a double-digit lead dissipate during the second half, the Buckeyes scored the final 13 points of a 68-60 win against Creighton at the CHI Health Center Omaha as part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games to move to 3-0 for the third straight year and eighth time in the last nine years.
It wasn’t always pretty. And for much of the second half, it got nervy. And yet, a team with six new members pulled off a second road win despite at least two players shaking off or coming down with early flu symptoms.
Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
The excitement, both on the court and echoing down the concrete hallway outside the locker room once coach Chris Holtmann arrived, was palpable. That’s what happens when a team turns a slugfest into a runaway win.
Senior C.J. Jackson, who struggled for much of the game but came up big late, said the second-half struggles were easily explainable.
“We stopped communicating,” he said. “That was the biggest thing. We lost a couple guys in matchups, gave up some early threes and early easy layups in transition, even after makes. That kind of hurt us. We knew that kind of got them going. They’re more of a team that likes to get out and run and once that happened we started communicating and got back in it.”
In some ways, Ohio State’s path to success was paved in a season-opening win at Cincinnati. In that one, though, the Buckeyes never gave up the lead during the second half. This was a different story.
Creighton led 60-56 with 2:57 to play.
“(Cincinnati) certainly has helped, because that was a great atmosphere as well,” Holtmann said. “Given the fact that we have so many new guys, there’s no question that that helped. The one difference was we didn’t get down by four in that game. This is the first time (we did that). There we were always able to keep them at bay a little bit.”
It was Washington who got things going, immediately pulling the Buckeyes within 60-59 with a three-pointer. In his last two games, Washington is 9 for 13 from three.
Creighton missed its final five field goals and a free throw and had a turnover in the final 2:57.
“We knew they’re a good team and they were going to make a run,” Jackson said. “It was just withstanding that run and handling the adversity.”
Holtmann is now 5-0 with the Buckeyes when playing a road game between two unranked teams.
Luther Muhammad picked up his fourth foul with 8:09 to play and Ohio State clinging to a 49-48 lead. The freshman had been in foul trouble for much of the game, but with senior C.J. Jackson also struggling, Holtmann had to constantly weigh how to juggle playing time for the two guards.
It affected how the Buckeyes played, particularly in the second half and particularly on defense, and forced the staff to make some tough decisions.
“We wanted him on (Ty-Shon Alexander) as much as possible,” Holtmann said. “Now, we were switching on a lot of ball screens so it didn’t matter as much. We wanted him on (Alexander) as much as we could, but he came in and made a critical play late. We switched him and Duane (Washington) offense-defense just for a little bit because he’s a little more advanced right now than Duane is defensively.”
Alexander finished as Creighton’s leading scorer with 16 points but needed 14 shots to get there.
When Woods came off the court, he had a small cheering section waiting for him. The Gastonia, North Carolina, native had his former AAU coach in the house to watch the game.
Not only that, but he was there to watch Alexander, a sophomore who hails from Charlotte. The two are close friends.
“We played for the same AAU program, and we trained together over the summer,” Woods said. “Our AAU coach came to support us. He’s my little brother. He can’t have the upper edge on me. I couldn’t have that. Now I get to brag when we get to go home over the summer.”
Alexander, later, reciprocated by calling Woods his big brother.
“Throughout the summers we always battle one on one,” he said. “It’s competitive between me and him. He’s a great player.”
The two talked a lot before the game, Alexander said, and will do so even though the Buckeyes won.
“We did a lot of talking, exchanged some words, let’s see who’s going to come out with the win,” he said. “I’ll talk to him. He’s cool. Nothing too big, nothing too small.”
“He works hard and it showed,” Woods said of Alexander. “He had 16 tonight and he can shoot the ball. That’s something coach has been getting on us about, confidence in our game and our training. We put in the work. Hopefully he continues to have a great season and hopefully we continue to have a great season as well.”
With Ohio State ahead 49-48, the Buckeyes put together a defensive possession that Holtmann will surely pick apart for some time to come. First, Alexander missed a three, but the Bluejays came up with an offensive rebound to reset the shot clock with 8:51 left.
Then Alexander got another three-point look that he missed, and Musa Jallow was called for a foul on the rebound to reset the clock with 8:45 left. Then Marcus Zegarowski hissed a three-pointer, only to have Martin Krampelj grab another offensive rebound to extend the possession at 8:30.
Four seconds later, Kaleb Wesson picked up a foul, again resetting the shot clock, and he was replaced by Jaedon LeDee. He finally ended things when Zegarowski missed the front end of a one-and-one at 8:09.
That amounted to 78 straight seconds of defending for the Buckeyes, even if it didn’t immediately yield any Creighton points.
“When we go to that small lineup, we’ve got to all rebound,” Woods said. “I know I was part of that. The big got one on me. It’s just being the grittier team, being more feisty. That’s what we’ve got to do, especially when Kaleb goes out of the game and we go small. We’ve got to be that team that wants it more. That’s something we’re going to talk about in film and that’s something we’re going to work on as guards in that small lineup.”
“Usually I’m in a pretty bad mood when I’m in this seat here.” – Holtmann, in the postgame interview room, after going 1-2 in three games while at Butler.