Saturday’s showdown with No. 8 Michigan State gave Chris Holtmann a situation he’s discussed seemingly since last season came to a close. With so many new faces on his roster, the Ohio State coach has presented the scenario often: what kind of leadership would assert itself in close games down the stretch once Big Ten play got underway?
Against the Spartans, the No. 14 Buckeyes got some answers. And the primary lesson learned is that there is obviously still room for growth for Ohio State after an 86-77 loss to Michigan State.
In a game with 14 lead changes that was tied 11 times, the Buckeyes held a one-point lead at 72-71 with 4:53 to play after a pair of Keyshawn Woods free throws. From there, they would not hit another field goal until 44 seconds remained as Michigan State would close on a 15-5 run to disguise what had been a tight game as a three-possession win.
Holtmann said he’d have to look at it more to see what he learned about his team in this situation, but he had an initial thought.
“I probably had too much youth on the floor in the last 4-5 minutes,” he said. “We were a little bit limited with C.J. (Jackson)’s issues, but looking back on it if I was to make a change maybe I would try to get more experience on the floor. Hopefully it will help us moving forward and hopefully we’ll be able to execute better than we did there late.”
Jackson dealt with significant cramping issues that limited him late. More on that later. From his spot on the bench, though, Jackson said the huddles remained positive.
“They’re always upbeat,” he said. “Everyone’s always talking. We were communicating time and score at the time. We just didn’t go out there and execute.”
One case in point: after a Luther Muhammad basket with 44.1 seconds left pulled the Buckeyes within 81-75, Michigan State’s Kenny Goins turned the ball over when he stepped on the baseline while inbounding the ball underneath the Ohio State basket after a timeout.
With a chance to make it a one-possession game, freshman Duane Washington Jr. threw a weak pass from the paint out to the three-point line that was intercepted by Goins. It was the final nail in any hopes of a last-minute comeback for the Buckeyes.
“We’ve been there before so you know it’s a long game,” Jackson said. “Goins stepped over the line and then we turned it over. Things like that.”
Some of that is just the difference in experience. The Buckeyes are No. 248 nationally in experience, well behind Michigan State at No. 133. Spartans coach Tom Izzo got at that point in a number of different ways, praising the likes of Cassius Winston and Nick Ward for being mature enough to handle the runs the Buckeyes put on them throughout the game and particularly to close the first half.
“I thought our experience helped a little bit in the second half,” he said. “In the first half I thought we were a joke. They got everything and that is intolerable from me. I had no problems with our offense. We talked a lot this week that defense travels. You don’t win in this league on the road without your defense.”
But that offense…
What Izzo said isn’t wrong, but the Spartans also won because of their second-half offensive proficiency. The Spartans shot 76.5 percent from the floor after halftime and actually missed their first shot of the half, going on to hit 12 of their final 16 shots while also going 22 for 26 (84.6 percent) from the free-throw line.
The 50-point half was the first allowed by the Buckeyes since Indiana had 54 in the final game of the 2016-17 season. The 30 free throws made by Michigan State today are the most by a Big Ten team against the Buckeyes since Wisconsin made 32 on Valentine's Day, 2004.
“They’re a good offensive team,” Holtmann said. “I think it was a combination of transition, half court, we put them on the line too much, we made some not-the-most intelligent plays with putting them on the line at times and they converted on the line.”
Kaleb Wesson went for 25 points for Ohio State. That was an example of a team’s strength proving to be exactly that. But beyond that, a pair of key Buckeyes struggled due to injury or ineffectiveness in ways that will cripple them on most nights.
First, Jackson came down with a cramping issue that significantly affected him down the stretch at times last season. It’s a medical condition the senior has worked to address, but it reared its head in an ugly way on the biggest stage of the season so far.
“This game was probably the worst of the year so far,” he said. “I’m just doing what the doctors tell me to. I’ll probably come here tomorrow and take a look at things and see where we can go from here.”
Jackson still played 28 minutes, but he could only go for 9:15 during the second half. He did not attempt a shot, committed two fouls and had one steal. During the first half, Jackson was active defensively, helping to limit Cassius Winston and looked comfortable seeking his shot.
Consider his first-half stat line: 10 points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals with zero turnovers.
“He tried to go back in, but he couldn’t move,” Holtmann said. “I think he thought he could go and he switched a matchup on the floor we did not like. We had a young guy on Cassius and it wasn’t a great matchup for us. The guys on the bench were saying he’s not himself. He was playing well. I thought he was really active in the first half and led us in deflections. He was playing well.
“Now if he plays 10 more minutes are we going to win the game? Who knows, but he had to come out at that point.”
With Jackson ailing and Wesson playing with foul trouble, the Buckeyes didn’t get much from Woods. In 27:51, he missed all five of his field goals, had four assists and just one turnover to finish with two points.
It’s the third time this season he has failed to make a field goal. Since scoring 31 combined points in wins against Illinois and Bucknell, Woods has scored 24 points in his last four games (although he did finish with 10 assists and no turnovers against UCLA).
Izzo credited Winston for being his brain on the court, and it showed as he powered the second-half comeback for the Spartans. In Woods and Jackson, Holtmann is still looking for his.
“I think Keyshawn needs to be more aggressive and assertive,” he said. “Across the board we had too many errors that are costly when you’re in league play. It’s a missed blockout, it’s poor defensive transition, it’s a missed assignment. That’s where our veteran guys have to be on point. We’re not there yet. We have to teach it more consistently and better.”
Cheers rang out around Value City Arena during the final moment even as the Spartans were closing in on the win. With 51 seconds to play, freshman forward Justin Ahrens checked in for the first time all game, giving him a chance to play against a Michigan State team featuring his older brother, Kyle, who had started and finished with nine points and three rebounds.
Then with 28 seconds left, Izzo put his Ahrens back into the game, allowing the brother to close out the game on the court together. They guarded each other – nominally, as the outcome was already decided – as their mother, Susan, wiped away tears from the Ohio State parents’ section.
“Justin’s a tremendous kid and has a very, very bright future,” Holtmann said. “He’s playing against his older brother who went through some ups and downs based on injury and has really played a terrific role for them right now. I’m happy for his brother and excited about what Justin’s going to become.”
we used to pray for times like this.. pic.twitter.com/BPMKVMBrrZ— Justin Ahrens (@ahrensjustin12) January 5, 2019
Roughly 400 people were expected from their hometown of Versailles, Ohio. A handful of fans were spotted sporting shirts with both schools and jersey numbers represented.
“This was a big game for (Kyle) too,” Izzo said. “His poor parents had Buckeye sweaters and Spartan underwear and somebody else’s hat. That’s a tough deal, but it meant a lot to him.”
Kyle Ahrens had a key play late in the game to help the Spartans pull away. Ahead 75-72 with less than three minutes to go, Ahrens came up with a pivotal offensive rebound of a Goins missed jumper and laid it in with 2:37 to play to make it a two-possession game.
He also had a great fake, dribble and two-hand slam during the second half.
“Kyle Ahrens, the dunk and the offensive rebound might have been the two biggest plays in the game,” Izzo said.
Value City Arena hadn’t been kind to Ward since he graduated from Gahanna. In two returns to Central Ohio, the big man was a combined 3 for 8 from the floor with two rebounds, six turnovers and 12 total points.
Saturday, Ward had 21 points and eight rebounds.
“Nick was solid the entire game,” Izzo said. “That’s another guy who grew a whole lot. We all know it was a disaster here last year. That maturity makes me feel good about him.”
“I would hope that they’re looking forward to the next one. They’ve got a lot of learning to do between now and then. You give a team like Michigan State tremendous credit because of what they face on a night-to-night basis based on the quality and consistency of their program. Any team that’s coming in here, they’ve been top 10 the last two years we’ve played them, it’s a great credit to them. I’m sure our guys were anticipating this game. I don’t know that I as a coach always have a great feel for that because we’re focused on execution and the next play.” – Holtmann