LINCOLN, Neb. — The ending of a losing streak was cause for celebration for the Ohio State men’s basketball team. In Saturday’s 70-60 road win against Nebraska, the Buckeyes exorcized a few demons that accompanied a five-game losing streak that marked the longest in 21 years for the program.
Throughout, there have been solid stretches of play and opportunities for success. The Buckeyes pushed Michigan State to the final two minutes in the first game of the streak. They led in the final two minutes at Rutgers, led at Iowa at halftime, had competitive stretches in a home loss to No. 19 Maryland and rode the momentum of a hastily assembled small lineup to stay within a possession or two of Purdue on Jan. 23.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
>> Read more: Ohio State men’s basketball | Ohio State 70, Nebraska 60: Buckeyes finally snap losing streak
It all added up to what coach Chris Holtmann said had been the hardest stretch of his coaching career — and this from a coach who lost 41 games in his first two seasons at Gardner-Webb. With a road date at one-loss Michigan looming three days ahead, though, Holtmann’s joy at climbing back into the win column was tempered.
“I’ve been reminded of the losing streak so much by many of our fine people back home in the media, but I didn’t necessarily look at it as — whether you lose one or you lose five, it’s miserable,” he said during his postgame press conference at Pinnacle Bank Arena. “It really is. Obviously the misery was compounded five times, I guess, but I don’t look at this like, ‘Hey, fun times are here again.’ We’ve got to continue to be tough-minded and grow and see if we can take some of this and get better.”
Together we grow. #Team120 pic.twitter.com/M0lmi81c3T— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) January 26, 2019
Friday, Holtmann told many of those same reporters that the obviousness of the losing streak wasn’t something they had necessarily focused on with the players. The overall message was one of playing better, fixing mistakes and trying to get back to the same spirit of play that got Ohio State out to a 12-1 start to the season.
One win doesn’t change the entire season, but it provided some relief.
“We haven’t really talked about it as a team,” he said. “I get it, why it’s a storyline. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be a storyline, but what makes me feel really good is the smile on our guys’ faces after a win like this. I just think for us, we’ve got to focus in on what we did well today and how we do them even better in the coming games.”
There were plenty of smiles. Senior C.J. Jackson and freshman Luther Muhammad sported them as they stood outside the visitors’ locker room after the win.
“Honestly, it was a good feeling,” Jackson said. “It’s kind of like two seasons for the Big Ten. To get that first one back (in conference play), it’s a great feeling. We got contributions from everyone, even the guys who didn’t play. Luther had a really big game that really helped us.”
Muhammad led the way offensively with a career-high 24 points. Jackson had 10, as did junior forward Andre Wesson. Holtmann again expanded his rotation, playing nine guys for at least 7:43 with each player grabbing at least two rebounds.
Collectively, the Buckeyes stayed connected during the second half even as Nebraska came out with a charge and briefly claimed a two-point lead. Then they pulled away and maintained the lead.
I asked Muhammad what the huddles were like as the second half progressed.
“Understanding that teams are going to make runs,” he said. “C.J. always lets us know to stay together, no matter what, stay as a team, don’t get separate, don’t get into your individual self. Stay within the team…”
Then he paused, searching for the right words. Not finding them, he turned to Jackson and said, “Help me out.”
The senior didn’t miss a beat.
“Stay together,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. We knew they were going to make a run. They’re at home, it’s tough to come in here and play. Ewe knew they were going to come out hot, especially how the first half went. We just had to come together like Luther said. The biggest thing was our approach. We knew that was going to happen, and with the right approach we’d be fine.”
Today, they were, although Holtmann said connectivity hasn’t been an issue with this group.
“This group has been pretty tied together, even through as hard a stretch as I think any of us could’ve dreamed of,” he said. “Listen: the tough times aren’t ending, right? They really stayed together, but I think they felt a little momentum of finally some things maybe going our way. That was great to see.”
Wesson shakes off rough start
It’s been a difficult stretch of games for sophomore center Kaleb Wesson, who averaged 4.3 fouls during the losing streak and hadn’t scored more than 11 points during the last three games leading into Saturday. Wesson has clearly been the focus of opposing scouting reports, and it’s shown.
Against the Cornhuskers, Wesson again found himself on the bench for most of the first half. This time, though, he only had one foul.
It was the three first-half turnovers that did him in.
“He was just struggling,” Holtmann said. “Three turnovers in the first half, that was primarily the reason. He was just being too careless with the ball.”
It didn’t sink him, however. During the second half, Wesson played 16:41 and pulled down nine rebounds — eight on the defensive end. That helped keep Nebraska from extending possessions and contributed to a 7-2 second-half Ohio State advantage in second-chance points.
Wesson finished with 11 rebounds, his third-highest total of the season.
“His rebounding? Outstanding,” Holtmann said. “I thought his rebounding was a difference for us down the stretch, but we’ve got to do a better job collectively of taking care of the ball.”
And his offensive drought — he was 3 of 8 from the floor and did have one critical three-pointer during the second half — didn’t sink the Buckeyes.
“Kaleb’s definitely a big part of our team and we know and the other team knows going in that that’s the case,” Jackson said. “A lot of guys the past couple of games, especially today, they’ve stepped up like Luther, Jae came in and gave us a huge lift off the bench when Kaleb was struggling with fouls and the flow of the game. Guys are starting to step up and that’s going to help us as far as depth-wise.”
Against Purdue on Wednesday night, Ohio State turned the ball over 19 times in what would become a 12-point loss. The Buckeyes looked to be headed for a similar morning (the game tipped off at 11 a.m. local time) against the Cornhuskers after turning it over seven times in the first 12:34 of the game.
Then they committed six the rest of the way, including only four during the second half.
“I thought we did a much better job of taking care of the ball in the second half,” Holtmann said. “We were smarter in the second half in some areas.”
Muhammad, who had just one, said the difference was, “Just not making careless plays, careless passes. Basically just making the right basketball play.”
“Just knowing coming in it was going to be a tough environment. Last time we came in here we kind of snuck away with one. To come in here and beat them like this, it feels good. We’ve got a lot of young guys that haven’t really experienced the full Big Ten season and they’re learning, they’re doing well in the process, and it’s just a great feeling.” — Jackson, on winning at Pinnacle Bank Arena