COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The Xfinity Center has not treated Ohio State kindly in recent history. It was here, three years ago, that Maryland hung the worst loss of the Thad Matta era on the Buckeyes with a 100-65 blowout in a game played Jan. 16, 2016.
In that game, Maryland closed the half with a 35-17 run, opened the second with a 15-3 one and led by as many as 44 points. Afterward, Terrapins lynchpin guard Melo Trimble told reporters that he could tell the Buckeyes had given up.
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“Yeah, I could tell they’re not mature yet,” he said. “They just let the game get away. They started putting their heads down, not being coachable, and when teams get like that that’s when we’re supposed to take advantage.”
It was through that prism, as well as the recent run of offense-challenged results that made today’s 72-62 Ohio State loss in front of a sellout crowd of 17,569 feel a little different. In front of a hostile crowd and without their most-experienced player, the Buckeyes looked dead to rights when Maryland pushed its lead to a game-high 16 points with 11:12 to play.
Instead, Ohio State fought back. Ultimately it proved to be too little too late, but it helped create what felt like a more aesthetically pleasing result that might be something the Buckeyes can build on – and here’s why.
With C.J. Jackson unable to play due to a shoulder injury, the Buckeyes had to turn to several players who have either seen limited playing time or not been producing much. And for the most part, several of those guys answered the bell.
Graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods, who hadn’t scored in double figures in five straight games and had just two Big Ten games with at least 10 points, steadied the offense early with 10 first-half points.
Freshman guard Duane Washington Jr., whose role continues to expand, was only 1 of 6 from three but 5 of 12 overall from the floor for a team-high 15 points. It was his first double-digit game since he scored 14 in the first matchup against Maryland back on Jan. 18.
But topping the list was freshman Justin Ahrens, who has been an unused substitute in four Big Ten games this year and entered the game averaging 1.7 points while playing 6.4 minutes in 17 appearances this year. Rewarded for his season-long effort with his first career start, Ahrens pitched in nine points – all in the second half – and hit three three-pointers.
It was the kind of performance that can permeate through a roster. The Buckeyes have to hope that’s the case as they prepare to host Iowa in three days and go to Purdue four days later.
“That’s what good players do, honestly,” coach Chris Holtmann said of Ahrens’ approach. “I’m not minimizing Justin’s attitude, but that’s what good players do. They find a way to keep staying with it, they don’t get too discouraged. He knew there were going to be some times where he wasn’t going to play a whole lot and to his credit he’s had the right approach. I think he’s seeing the rewards of it here.”
Woods and Washington, Ohio State’s two media representatives after the game, both expressed their joy in seeing Ahrens play a significant role for the first real time in his career.
Ultimately, again, it wasn’t enough for a win. With three of the final four regular-season games against teams slated to make the NCAA Tournament, Ohio State will have to steal one and take care of business at Northwestern just to finish 9-11 in league play.
But after this game, Holtmann didn’t have any issues with his team’s approach or attitude.
“Pretty pleased,” he said. “I probably would say we could be better if I wasn’t pleased, but I’m pretty pleased with this group. They’re playing games that they know are going to matter and I think they’re pretty focused on that and that alone. Some guys are trying to find themselves a little bit as they struggle, but that happens over the course of a season.”
One of the Buckeyes who does seem to be searching a little bit right now is freshman Luther Muhammad, who has carried a heavy load for most of the season. Muhammad has averaged 29.5 minutes per game, second-most on the team, but played a season-low 18:24 today and finished 1 of 8 from the floor. His one make was from three, where he had six attempts, and he committed three of Ohio State’s seven turnovers.
One of them in particular got Holtmann’s attention and sent him to the bench. With 4:51 remaining in the first half and Maryland leading 25-19, Muhammad attempted an ill-advised, behind-the-back pass that was picked off by Darryl Morsell and fed to Anthony Cowan for a fast-break layup.
Holtmann called timeout and pulled Muhammad, who sat for the remainder of the half and did not start the second. Washington started in his place, and Muhammad didn’t re-enter until 14:45 remained in the game.
“That was just a careless play that our team can’t have right now,” Holtmann said when asked about the turnover. “That was the point in sitting him, but he’s an incredible kid who we love coaching who’s got a tremendous future. We’ve got to get him back in a better rhythm and he’s got to fight to get back into a rhythm, but he’s got to impact the game in ways he can impact the game in right now. He’ll be fine. He’s got to get back to being who he is.”
Since scoring a combined 32 points in wins against Rutgers and Penn State, Muhammad has scored a total of 18 points in the last five games while shooting 13.5 percent (5 for 37) from the floor and 17.6 percent (3 for 17) from three and has nine assists against eight turnovers.
Friday afternoon before practice, Holtmann had expressed home that Jackson would be able to play against Maryland after suffering a shoulder injury against Northwestern. That proved impossible after Jackson wasn’t able to practice, and he was announced as being unavailable for the game and day-to-day with the injury roughly an hour before tip-off.
“He’s day-to-day,” Holtmann said after the game. “It’s really going to be what he can tolerate, because it’s not a significant injury. What that means, it’s obviously given him a lot of pain. I think it’s uncomfortable for him, but I don’t know what that’s going to suggest. Obviously we’ve got a very quick turnaround. We need to be ready here.”
Washington said the Buckeyes embraced a “next man up” mentality when they found out before practice Friday that Jackson wouldn’t be available.
“We would obviously love to have C.J.,” he said. “We need C.J. out there, but the best way to win is having all your teammates with you but we had to move on. Everyone was ready. Practice (Friday) was good. We came out and fought. The coaches have confidence in us and we have confidence in ourselves and we came out and did what we had to do to try and get the win.”
Although the Buckeyes missed his scoring, Holtmann pointed to his key role on defense as being particularly tough to overcome.
“Our other guys stepped up and did a really good job,” he said. “What we missed from C.J., as much as anything, is (Anthony) Cowan’s such a difficult matchup and when we pull Luther from the lineup we really need another guy to challenge him. I think that’s where we felt it as much as anything.”
Maryland presents one of the literal biggest challenges in the Big Ten. With Bruno Fernando (6-10, 240 pounds) and Jalen Smith (6-10, 215) anchoring the paint, the Terrapins bring plenty of beef to the court.
Ohio State’s primary counter, pound-for-pound, is sophomore Kaleb Wesson. Matched up there all game, the 6-9, 270-pound center finished 3 for 12 overall and was 1 of 5 from three for seven points. The latter shooting number, Holtmann said, had something to do with Fernando.
“A lot,” he said. “Kaleb’s a really good shooter. We just want him to be aggressive and take good, clean ones. I thought he had some really good clean ones that he’ll normally make. Maybe one of them was rushed, one or two of them. The other ones I thought were good shots for our team and ones Kaleb needs to continue to take.”
In two games against the Terrapins, Wesson is 6 for 19 (31.6 percent) from the floor and 2 for 8 (25.0 percent) from three. That means that 42.1 percent of his shots against Maryland have been from three-point range.
Wesson averaged 9.0 points in his two games against Maryland this year.
“It’s a battle, I can tell you that,” Fernando said of facing Wesson. “He’s probably got like 60 pounds on me, so I just try to get him as tired as I can, move my feet as much as I can, and I know the weak side help is going to be there so I just try to get him tired.”
“I thought we were obviously struggling to make shots there to start the second half, but I don’t know how much issue I took with the quality of our shots there so you would hope that would turn a little bit. I think we had a stretch where it affected our defense, and that was disappointing. It was good to see some of those shots go down. I think it might’ve been something as simple as that. We had a couple guys throw in a few shots. We challenged them at a timeout that we needed a little more fight to what we were showing. This group all year, honestly there have been very few moments where that’s not been the case. I’ve been proud of that.” – Holtmann, on Ohio State rallying from 16 down to pull within two points during the second half.