In a lot of facets, this was the offensive performance Ohio State needed in a big way. 

Fresh off a season-low 44-point performance in Sunday’s loss at Michigan State, the Buckeyes came into Wednesday night’s home game against Northwestern having been held to 56 points or fewer in three straight games. They were 1-2 in those games and facing a Wildcats team that, if it does anything well, it can pack the paint and make teams look ugly offensively. Northwestern had held its last eight opponents below their season scoring averages and are a top-30 team nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com.

So after missing 10 of its first 11 shots, it was encouraging for Ohio State that it would go on to hit 24 of its final 45 (53.3 percent) from the floor, assist on 18 of 25 made field goals and only commit eight turnovers in a 63-49 win that was salted away roughly halfway through the second half.

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With five games remaining, four of them against Quad 1 opponents, it accounted for some positive momentum after what has recently been a bit of a slog. 

Kaleb Wesson led the way. After looking fatigued during the second half at Michigan State, he finished with a game-high 22 points, a team-high eight rebounds, a team-high four assists and only two turnovers in a team-high 33:04 of playing time. 

Wesson was 8 for 14 from the field, the most field goals he’s attempted since a loss at Rutgers back on January 9. And he did it against a game plan that, early on, was planning on double-teaming him every time he touched the ball on the block. Instead, his finest passing game of the season stymied that Northwestern plan and positioned him for a big game. 

“I feel like I passed the ball pretty well today,” he said. “I had two turnovers, but …” 

One of those wasn’t his. A pass to Duane Washington Jr. went off the freshman’s hands and out of bounds, and it was Wesson who was credited for the turnover. Washington, seated to Wesson’s left, owned up to it during postgame interviews. 

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said the Buckeyes expected the Wildcats to double Wesson. 

“I thought Kaleb was really good the whole night on both ends,” he said. “He was assertive. We have worked with him from the beginning of the year on passing out of double teams because it’s a hard thing for a guy when you’re having another 6-9, 6-10, long guy coming at you. It can be really difficult. His decision-making needs to be a little bit quicker. It was tonight. 

“I thought our guys did a better job cutting tonight and it did take them a little bit out of that. We knew they were going to do that. I’m sure they knew we were going to post trap. There’s not many secrets this time of year.” 

Said Northwestern coach Chris Collins: “Kaleb in the post, when he gets deep position it’s really hard to stop.” 

Wesson said the different tonight was “Just my teammates hitting shots when I was finding them. The helps a lot as far as them being able to double-team me and being able to spread out the floor.” 

It wasn’t just him, though. Eight Buckeyes had at least one assist, with Keyshawn Woods and Luther Muhammad each having three. 

Overall, it felt like the best-run offense for Ohio State in several games. Holtmann pumped the brakes on too much praise, however. 

“I think the whole turnover thing that we’ve discussed ad nauseum for obvious reasons, some teams defend differently,” he said. “Some teams really create turnovers with their defense. They don’t as much. They do other things to affect you in terms of their positioning, although they really did pressure us tonight, maybe more than we anticipated, which is why we tried to back-cut them some. I thought our guys were just a little more conscientious. 

“They’d tell you that’s the No. 1 thing I’ve talked about since the first two weeks of the season, so as you can tell it’s obviously fallen on deaf ears. I’m pleased with tonight what their approach was and their mind-set in that area.” 

Battling for time

Woods has played significantly more minutes this season than Washington, but the freshman has started to eat into some of the graduate transfer’s playing time of late. 

Through the first 22 games, Woods averaged 26.4 minutes and Washington averaged 16.5. But in the last three games leading into Wednesday night, Woods has averaged 21.3 and Washington has averaged 21.0. 

Against the Wildcats, Woods played 29:55 off the bench and Washington a career-high 27:37. Both numbers were aided by foul trouble and a left shoulder injury to C.J. Jackson, but each gave the Buckeyes a lift. 

Washington hit two first-half three-pointers while the rest of his teammates combined to miss all eight of their attempts as the Buckeyes clawed out a 24-20 lead, and he also took two charges in the game while eventually finishing with eight points. In his last five games, Washington has averaged 6.8 points while shooting 41.2 percent (7 for 17) from three. 

“Duane was really good for us tonight, and when you think about the games we’ve won here of late, he’s come in and given us quality minutes,” Holtmann said. “At Indiana, home versus Penn State we do not win without Duane making some critical threes. We’ve just got to keep getting him better. He’s got to keep having the right approach. I thought he was really good and defensively he was really solid, but let’s see how it is tomorrow in practice.” 

At Indiana, Washington had six points in 17 minutes and was 2 of 3 from three. Against Penn State, he had nine points and hit both of his three-point attempts in only 13 minutes. 

“I definitely feel like I’ve still got to get better, I’ve still got to learn every single day come to practice to get better,” Washington said. “I definitely feel like I came a long way in becoming a better player, better teammate, better person and we come to practice every day to get better.” 

Woods, too, played a key role in the win. He hit 3 of 7 shots for seven points, his most since he went 4 for 7 for 11 points against Rutgers on Feb. 2. He had three turnovers, two of which came on consecutive possessions, but he followed that up by being the first player on the court on the next possession when freshman Luther Muhammad lost his handle on the ball. 

For the season, he is now averaging 6.4 points and 2.9 rebounds while shooting 39.4 percent from the field. Washington is averaging 6.8 points per game. 

“I’ve been pleased with Keyshawn,” Holtmann said. “Like anybody he’s had some ups and downs. I’ve been really pleased with Keyshawn for the bulk of the season. He’s in a high level league, this is the best league in the country top to bottom, but I thought he really led tonight. He brought a little bit of an edge to us tonight that I appreciated.” 

Earning the nod

He didn’t know it, but his first-half performance earned Justin Ahrens the nod to start the second half for the Buckeyes. 

The lightly used freshman, who has played five minutes in the last four games including two games in which he saw no action, hadn’t played during the first half but still got Holtmann’s attention. 

“I had been thinking about potentially even starting him this game and I just felt like he was really engaged, honestly, on the bench in the first half,” the coach said. “I just felt like he was really engaged, and when you’re a coach and you see a guy who hasn’t played a whole lot and he’s engaged in the game, what he’s telling you is I’m fully invested in what we’re doing right now. When it’s February, you want dudes who are fully invested in what you’re doing. You want guys that are fully invested in the growth of the team. That’s what you’re looking for, and if you’re not fully invested, then I’m probably not going to give you a nod there. He is, and he responded well.” 

Ahrens wound up playing 7:05 during the second half, making both of his field-goal attempts including a two-handed dunk, to help spark the Buckeyes. 

Later, Holtmann said his comments did not mean he felt some players had not been fully invested in the team’s success from the bench. 

“It’s not an indictment on anybody else,” he said. “I didn’t intend it like that. I just noticed him in the first half, and I noticed him in practice yesterday. That was a specific example of me noticing Justin and saying, ‘Let’s see if he’s ready to go.” It was a double take when I told him he was going in. He kind of looked at me and I think he said, ‘Now?’ I said yeah, to start the half. 

“It was good to see him respond and give us a little bit of life.” 

Ahrens replaced sophomore Musa Jallow, who has started the last nine games since classmate Kyle Young went down with a stress fracture to his lower right leg. Against Northwestern, he played the first 5:02 and did not return to the game, finishing with two rebounds and one block. 

Four starters are locked in for the Buckeyes: Jackson, Muhammad, Andre Wesson and Kaleb Wesson. That fifth starting spot was Young’s, and it would be again if he was healthy enough, Holtmann said. 

“He’s not been able to practice, so his conditioning is affected,” he said of Young. “I can’t play him as much as I’d like to be able to play him right now because he gets tired. You can only get so much conditioning on the bike. He didn’t practice (Tuesday). I understand why. He would probably be inserted in our starting lineup. That would probably be the guy, we could slide Dre (to small forward) like we started the season, but he can’t do that right now with his leg.” 

In 13:53, Young was 4 of 5 from the field and had four rebounds and two assists. 

“Kyle makes all the tough plays for us,” Kaleb Wesson said. “He’s a nitty-gritty guy who’s going to go get rebounds, score when he’s open. He’s a solid player. Every successful team, you buy into your role and it makes for a more successful team. When you try to step outside your role and everybody wants to be the man, that’s when the team shuts down.” 

Holtmann said he’d prefer to have that spot locked down in his lineup but that injuries and youth have combined to make his rotations more fluid than he’d prefer at this point of the season. 

“I’m kind of searching,” he said. “Keyshawn would rather come off the bench. I think he likes seeing the game for a little bit. (Still searching) is probably a good way of putting it.” 

Quotable

“We’re by no means an offensive juggernaut. Give their defense some credit. I liked the quality of our shot. I know as coaches and probably media members as well, we like to pull out the negative things. A guy once told me when I got into coaching, they don’t write about the planes that land. Those are depressing words, but wise words. I think somebody in here might’ve printed us losing to Penn State before we actually won that game, by the way I believe, a couple weeks ago. But the bottom line is, we’re going to address the things we’ve got to make some constructive areas of improvement. We’re going to continue to do that, but we’re also going to continue to talk about the things we did well and try to get better in those areas.” – Holtmann, after the win 

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy