When Chris Holtmann sat in his seat for postgame interviews and announced that he needed a nap, nobody was prepared to argue.
In what was easily the most back-and-forth, perplexing, heart-pounding and occasionally brutally difficult game of the season, Ohio State found a way to out-tough Penn State late for a 74-70 win. Let’s take a quick tally of some of the insanity witnessed in this battle:
*Ohio State turned the ball over three times in 51 seconds at the same point on the court against the same Penn State defender.
*Excess condensation from the seasonably warm temperatures in Central Ohio had players slipping and sliding throughout
*44 total fouls were whistled
*Penn State had a go-ahead basket overturned by video review in the final minute
*Kyle Young shook off a four-game injury absence and impacted both ends
So what can the Buckeyes take from such a game? Aside from a win, the fact that they found the will to find a way to make enough plays down the stretch.
“Honestly, we expected a game like this,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “If you would’ve told me this game’s going to go down to the last minute, it’s going to be a one-possession, I’d have said yep, I’d bet money on that.”
It didn’t look to be headed that way early. Ohio State fell behind 8-2 to open the game when Josh Reaves scored all of Penn State’s points and had two steals, and then Pat Chambers oddly pulled him from the game not even three minutes in. The Buckeyes took full advantage, putting together a 22-1 run against a team that, for its 1-10 Big Ten record, had proven to be a tough out in most of its losses.
Then the turnovers started to pile up, Penn State started to claw back into the game and the final minutes were as tense as any Ohio State game this season.
“I think our guys showed great will and just stayed with it and tried to make one more play,” Holtmann said. “I thought we played a little smarter down the stretch than we have in some other games, with the exception of a foul here and there. Duane (Washington Jr.) gave us a tremendous lift, but his foul was not the way we need to play. I just thought we played a little smarter in our attack and that was important for us.”
Washington’s foul came with 8:11 to play and gave Lamar Stevens two free throws that he hit to give the Nittany Lions a 55-54 lead.
Junior Andre Wesson, who scored 15 points, said there was no challenge to find the proper motivation to fight with Penn State.
“It wasn’t hard for us,” he said. “They beat us three times last year. Probably one of the reasons we don’t have a ring right now, so with that motivation coming into the game we knew we had to get this one.”
Young’s big return
It was shortly after Ohio State’s home win against Rutgers on Saturday that the Buckeyes learned they’d likely be getting a quicker return to the lineup for Young than had been expected.
The sophomore missed four games with the injury, but he started practicing in preparation for this game.
“It was great because I knew he was hungry to get back,” freshman guard Luther Muhammad said. “He didn’t need too much motivation to come in the game and give his all. That also helped. We just told him come in, continue to play his game and he’ll continue to help the team and he did.”
His impact was all over the game. He finished with six rebounds and six points in 25 minutes as Holtmann watched his minutes and tried not to overdo it. Young came off the bench and at one point nearly had as many rebounds (six) as Penn State (eight).
His biggest plays came late. With the shot clock winding down and Penn State leading 70-69, senior guard C.J. Jackson worked the ball around and fed Young on the right block. Instead of quickly firing up a shot, he hesitated for just a second – only two remained on the shot clock – and allowed his defender to jump in anticipation of blocking his shot. Then he calmly finished the go-ahead field goal with 1:03 to play.
“I thought his shot-fake finish was big there late,” Holtmann said. “Showed great poise, and rebounded it well. Played with activity. That’s who Kyle is. We’ve missed that, and we’ve missed his experience, too. Jae’s (freshman Jaedon LeDee) given us some really good minutes, but Kyle’s got more experience right now.”
At the other end, then, Penn State got the ball to Lamar Stevens, who finished with a team-high 20 points. As he went up for two more, Young, who has seven blocks all season, rejected his shot to start a fracas of players all trying to nab possession.
Ultimately it would go out of bounds and the Nittany Lions were awarded the ball after a video review with one second left on the shot clock. Josh Reaves would throw a lob to Stevens on the right block that he nabbed over Jackson, but as he came down and went back up with it the shot clock went off. The points went up on the scoreboard for a 72-71 Penn State lead, but a video review would overturn the call and award the Buckeyes the ball on a shot-clock violation.
“I felt like we did a good job on the switch,” Holtmann said. “He just got it over. Stevens clearly got it but did not get it off. I just watched it. It was clear it was still in his hands. Perhaps we need a little more home cooking on the shot clock.”
Young played exactly 25 minutes.
“When he said he was playing I said, ‘You’re playing?’ ” junior Andre Wesson said. “He came in and didn’t miss a beat. He was still out there doing his job, rebounding, being another key part of our defense, blocking shots and everything. It was good to see.”
In a game that wasn’t the best-officiated of the season, Kaleb Wesson fouled out for the third time this season. He was hampered throughout the game and, five days removed from a 27-point outing, finished with six on 1-of-2 shooting in only 18:55.
The Buckeyes persevered because guys picked up his slack. Muhammad had 20 points, giving him two 20-plus-point efforts in his last four games. Andre Wesson had the first double-double of his career, putting up 15 points and a career-high 10 rebounds. In 13:46, Washington scored nine points after having scored seven in his last four games combined.
“Just knowing that with Kaleb out, somebody has to step up and fill that scoring role,” Andre Wesson said. “Kaleb’s such a big part of our offense, so when that piece comes out, somebody else has to hit shots. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
Penn State guarded Kaleb Wesson differently than Rutgers did, but the Buckeyes adjusted.
“I think it was a good team effort with a lot of guys making contributions when Kaleb was in and out because of foul trouble and when it was hard to get him the ball when they were shoving two or three guys at him in a post-trap situation,” Holtmann said. “I think we had other guys step up and really make plays. That’s what you need. There’s going to be certain teams that are just going to eliminate how many times Kaleb can touch the ball. We’ve got to have other guys make plays and we really did.
“Andre was terrific and Duane, Duane was the most efficient he’s been in terms of how effective he was. Luther gave us a lift. C.J. made some critical plays late, and Keyshawn (Woods).”
The Nittany Lions gave the Buckeyes fits with a 1-2-2 press that played a big part in forcing 18 turnovers they turned into 22 points. Jackson finished with five turnovers, tying a season-high total for the third time, and two of them came in quick order against the press.
He also had two passes go off his hands and right out of bounds. On one of them, late in the game, his attempt to save the ball carried him to the scorers’ table, where Holtmann gave him a quick hug as he headed back on the court as Jackson’s face fell with recognition of what he had just done.
Then late, he scored on a leaning throw-in from just inside the three-point line and had another tough basket in traffic as part of his 15-point night.
“It did show some toughness in his mind as much as anything, his ability to move on,” Holtmann said. “Obviously coached him two years now, so we’ve had a few of these moments together. I’ve had a few of these looking over at our bench saying what are we doing? I have to catch myself, because that’s kind of who he is. We want to eliminate some of those moments where it’s frustrating, but he can be a guy that can change a game.
“He had a couple finishes tonight. He competes. He plays exceptionally hard. I think him handling those frustrating moments has been maybe a great sign of growth, and not just this year but even last year. He’s so important to us that if he loses his spirit, then as coaches we can’t let that happen.”
As for the press itself, Holtmann took the blame for how badly the Buckeyes looked at times against it.
“I did not feel like we handled it very well, and I take responsibility for that,” he said. “I take responsibility. It’s on me. We prepared for so much with these guys because of how they have hurt us in the past. I mean, I watched every one of their league games. I just didn’t have our guys ready enough for the press because I didn’t anticipate it being that much of a factor. It’s my fault, so we’ve got to get better at it.”
Not the first three – or possibly four
Penn State’s three-game season sweep of the Buckeyes was unprecedented last season, but Holtmann actually has experienced that kind of history during his coaching career before.
During his stops at Gardner-Webb and then Butler, Holtmann has had four different four-game losing streaks to teams. At his first stop, the Bulldogs lost four straight games to UNC Asheville. Then, at Butler, those Bulldogs lost four straight to Villanova, four straight to Georgetown and four straight to Xavier.
During the 2015-16 season at Butler, Holtmann lost three games to Providence but, like Thursday night, won the first matchup the following season.
In his second season at Ohio State, Holtmann has now beaten every Big Ten team at least once.
For the game, coaches on both sides wore green ties and lapels to promote awareness of childhood illiteracy.
Holtmann, however, went without, instead wearing a green lapel on his suit coat.
“I thought about it, and I just said we’ll go open collar,” he said. “I was 0 for 3 against Penn State with a tie, you know.”
“They definitely took us down to the wire. This is going to help us for the future. That’s what you play a game for, to be in tough games like this. High-level games and intensity up to par and everyone coming out, playing their hardest.” – Muhammad