While past outcomes are no guarantee of future results, there was very little to indicate that a rally like what Ohio State put together in regulation Sunday afternoon was possible or even plausible.
The fifth half played the Buckeyes without suspended sophomore Kaleb Wesson had looked disturbingly similar to the first four, and they trailed No. 21 Wisconsin at Value City Arena by a 26-16 score at halftime. Starting with a 35-point loss at No. 14 Purdue on March 2, here’s what the Ohio State offense had mustered in each half entering the Wisconsin game:
Purdue, first half: 27.3 percent shooting, 20 points
Purdue, second half: 38.5 percent shooting, 31 points
Northwestern, first half: 14.3 percent shooting, 17 points
Northwestern second half: 36.1 percent shooting, 33 points
Then the Buckeyes missed their first 11 shots against the Big Ten’s stingiest scoring defense and, at the break, trailed 26-16 had shot 20.7 percent. That’s not good. And then Wisconsin pushed its lead to 23 points not even four minutes into the second half and still led by 22 points with less than seven minutes to play.
Dead and buried, right? The Buckeyes were until they suddenly weren’t. Starting with a banked-in three-pointer from C.J. Jackson, they began clawing their way back. Some of it came from a full-court press, one that forced the Badgers into three turnovers in the span of five minutes. Some of it came from coach Chris Holtmann finding a lineup capable of providing a spark at both ends, one that he mostly rode for the final seven minutes of the game.
And a lot of it came from a stark realization that their backs were against the wall. The Buckeyes are playing their way to the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, and they know it. It all ultimately came short of an actual, possibly bid-clinching win, but it did show that a fire remains on this Ohio State team.
Even if it didn’t start the second half that way, either. Not even a minute into the second half, Holtmann called timeout after Wisconsin opened with five quick points and lit into his team during the break.
“I was really disappointed with how we came out in the second half and I made that clear in the timeout,” he said. “I just was really disappointed with our body language and some of that was our youth and some of that was just, I don’t know, but man did they show some serious guts there in the second half.”
It didn’t produce immediate results. Wisconsin’s lead would still grow, reaching its 23-point apex before Ohio State would finally respond.
“The biggest thing was just effort,” Jackson said of the timeout lecture. “Nothing offensive or X’s and O’s-wise, what we were doing wrong, we just went out there and had no effort. Against a team like that, a really good team playing for something, that is not going to get it done. That’s why they jumped out on us big early in the second half.”
Down the stretch, they rectified things in a big way. It made for a thrilling close to the regular season at Value City Arena, one that those of the announced 18,231 who stuck around to see the comeback seemingly willed to existence with each basket.
So is that something the Buckeyes can build upon as they prepare for the Big Ten tournament? Graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods thinks so, saying they have no desire for a spring break.
“We watch the film and we show the fight that everybody had,” he said. “Now, you lose and you’re done. It needs to be a sense of urgency, because you lose one game and you’re out. This team wants it bad. We all do. We want to continue to play. That’s the one thing I love about my brothers.”
Grabbing the mic
With 1:45 to play, the Badgers were reeling and a ball came rolling across the court. This was a miniature scarlet-and-gray souvenir ball that had no business being on the court, and the game was brought to a halt with Wisconsin holding possession and clinging to a 63-59 lead.
An announcement was made imploring fans not to throw anything on the court, but Holtmann wanted to make sure the message was delivered loud and clear. He walked over to the scorers’ table, took the microphone and told the crowd, “Please don't throw anything on the court...but keep yelling loud!”
The place went nuts. And Wisconsin’s D’Mitrik Trice missed a shot, helping keep the comeback alive.
It was just one quirky moment, but one that Holtmann later said he wouldn’t have passed up.
“I did that because the official came to me and said, ‘Could you help us with them throwing stuff on the floor?’ ” Holtmann said. “I said, ‘If you’re asking me to get on the microphone, I certainly will.’ This team, you go through a couple games where you get beat up quite a bit … at home, we didn’t give them enough reason to get loud, but it was like they were wrapping their arms around our guys knowing we had some guys struggle and it was the difference, for sure.”
Jackson said the Buckeyes had to keep their emotions in check as that was transpiring.
“That definitely gives you juice because that’s not something you see every day,” he said. “We had to stay poised and stay locked into the moment because any mental breakdown, the game could’ve been over. With us having a couple young guys out there, I think they did a really good job of doing that.”
Holtmann said he made a decision to ride Jackson and Woods as much as he could down the stretch in looking for a way to come back. Ironically, both of them would have attempts at a game-winner only to come up short.
Jackson came first. After he took an illegal screen from Ethan Happ at halfcourt that gave the Buckeyes the ball with 29 seconds left, they dribbled down the clock for a final shot before the Badgers fouled to stop the clock with 6.3 seconds left. Ohio State then got the ball in Jackson’s hands, but his three-point shot was just a little off-target and went out of bounds with a second left on the clock.
“He played back a little bit so I rose up and shot it but I was a little off balance and it didn’t go as planned,” he said.
A review set the clock to 1.3 seconds left, and Wisconsin had one last attempt to win in regulation. Instead, Brad Davison’s throw past halfcourt was picked off by Woods, who had just enough time to get off a half-court heave that, although straight on, fell short.
“It was on-line to me,” he said. “I just left it short, but it looked good.”
Added Holtmann, “It looked right on line. Two feet away maybe from at least hitting the rim.”
Typically, Holtmann said he lives by putting a defender on the player attempting the full-court inbounds pass. This time, he chose the opposite route.
“We were debating whether to put somebody on the ball, and I’m a guy always on the ball in those situations, but Purdue last year we had a guy on the ball but we had Keita (Bates-Diop) on the ball and Kaleb back,” he said. “It’s a little different this year. That’s why we tried to put an extra defender in the backcourt.”
Sticking with his guys
With 7:06 to play and Wisconsin leading 58-36, Holtmann brought Kyle Young and Jackson back into the game in place of Duane Washington Jr. and Luther Muhammad. Those two joined with Musa Jallow, Andre Wesson and Woods.
The only substitution Holtmann would make during the remainder of regulation came with 5:36 left when Wesson fouled out. He was replaced by Justin Ahrens. At that point, Wisconsin still led by 14, 58-44, until Ahrens drilled a three-pointer on his first possession.
Then in overtime, Holtmann stuck with that same group until Woods fouled out with 12 seconds left and Ohio State trailing by four points.
Jallow, after playing 31 total minutes in his prior five games, played 31 against the Badgers and was a team-best plus-11.
Ahrens, who was 1 for 8 in his last two games after erupting for 29 in the win against Iowa, finished with nine points on 3-of-6 shooting and tied a career high with seven rebounds for a second straight game.
Jackson, mired in a significant slump, broke out in a big way. The senior had averaged 6.0 points while shooting 28.6 percent (12 for 42) from the floor and 27.3 percent (6 for 22) from three during his last five games, a stretch that included one missed game due to a shoulder injury.
Against Wisconsin, Jackson scored 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting with five assists and just one turnover but did go 6 for 11 from the free-throw line. Jackson is a career 76.5 percent shooter from the line.
“I thought he was playing really aggressive,” Holtmann said. “That’s why I went to him late. I just thought he was playing aggressive and pretty confident. I know he banked in one, but I thought he was playing aggressive and confident and got to the rim, got to the foul line, attacked in transition. That had been a big emphasis for us. I thought he was active. I thought he played like a guy who cared at a really, really high level, which is what your seniors do on senior day. He had a pretty clean look there on the dribble-up three. I would’ve loved for that to go down. I’m sure he’s frustrated with his free throws, but the fact that he got to the line 11 times is pretty good.”
Seniors speak out
Continuing a tradition he brought to Ohio State last year, Holtmann started his seniors for the final home game and allowed them to address the fans after the game. Last year, that came following a relatively easy win against Rutgers.
This year, though, all three took the microphone. Here are their entire speeches, in the order in which they were given. First, Woods, the graduate transfer:
Then Lane, the walk-on and captain:
And finally Jackson, the transfer:
“It’s been really hard. I mean, losing’s brutal. It’s miserable. It’s miserable. You don’t sleep. You don’t eat. You’re trying to find a way, you’re searching for answers in some ways. But we’ve got a choice in this whole deal and the choice is to complain about the circumstances or what’s happened or just to control our daily attitude and our approach to each day and how aggressive we’re being at approaching that day and to embrace the fact that while we were in great position, I don’t follow it enough to know where we’re at now but the reality is we’ve certainly got something to play for and that needs to be our approach. I just think as much as anything in light of all this, I’ve tried to eliminate following all that because it can wear you down. The reality is we just have to find a way to play well. We did that for stretches against a good team. We’re going to have to find a way to do that more and longer and see where that takes us. If we’re not good enough, we’re not good enough. But we’re going to fight like hell to get there.” – Holtmann, on life since the Iowa win.