TULSA, Okla. – They could see it on their faces. In their body language. In the quality of shot they were getting. And then, ultimately, on the scoreboard.
The Buckeyes brought a dialed-in, connected defense to their first-round NCAA Tournament game against Iowa State at the BOK Center. And while the Cyclones brought a high-powered offense, the oldest adage in sports proved true and ultimately helped No. 11 seed Ohio State advance to the second round of the Midwest Regional with a thrilling, 62-59 win.
They did it with defense, and lots of it.
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“It was a low-scoring game,” junior Andre Wesson said. “I know that’s not what they want at all. They want it free-flowing, running up and down, so just trying to keep it a low-scoring game definitely frustrated them.”
It took a three-pointer from Lindell Wigginton with 21.1 seconds left for Iowa State to avoid its lowest-scoring game of the season. The Cyclones scored 57 points in a one-point loss to Kansas State back on Jan. 12.
The Buckeyes were dialed in from the opening tip in this one, setting an early tone with an 11-2 run to open the game. Iowa State, which entered averaging 77.4 points per game, quickly learned that offense wasn’t going to come easy against an upper-level defensive team from the best-rated league in the nation.
There were a few keys the Buckeyes had emphasized throughout the week of practice.
“Just be physical with them on their cuts,” senior guard C.J. Jackson said. “We knew they had a couple guys that were really talented. Just make them feel us, make them play in crowds. Obviously they hit a couple tough shots that really good players are going to do, but when you make them do that for the full game it gets tough.”
At the half, Iowa State had been held to 24 points, a season-low mark for a half. During the first half, the Cyclones were held without a field goal for nearly 10 full minutes as the Buckeyes occasionally sputtered along offensively but didn’t bend defensively.
Cyclones coach Steve Prohm said the Buckeyes did a good job of keeping his players from getting into gaps and staying in front of them. He said that throughout the game, the Cyclones could hear Ohio State’s players constantly repeating “elbows, elbows, gap, gap” – or something to that effect.
“I forget what (Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann’s) terminology was,” he said. “What he’s trying to do is just keep everything in front. When we drive, what we call ‘Drive the Nail,’ they want to keep everything in front. That’s why you’ve got to space, space, space (the floor).”
And yet, despite having a significant size advantage on the Buckeyes and possessing more potential NBA talent, Iowa State couldn’t do that against an Ohio State team that played at its highest level all season.
“It was as good as it’s been all year,” Holtmann said of his team’s defense. “We told the guys (Sunday) that if we were going to win the game, we would need the best and most-complete defensive effort. I did not think we could be anything but our very best and most complete defensive effort team wise. I think it was our best.”
As Prohm said, the Buckeyes had keyed on keeping Iowa State out of the lane.
“Now, they have four guys who shoot almost 40 percent from the three-point line, but we were really concerned about, we just wanted them to play over top of us,” Holtmann said. “We were concerned about them being able to get in the lane, and once they did their driving and kicking is virtually impossible to stop.”
As the game progressed, multiple Buckeyes said they could tell that it was taking a toll on the Cyclones.
“Yeah, you could definitely tell, just based on the crowd,” Jackson said. “The crowd was getting a little antsy. They were arguing a little bit more calls toward the end of the game and they were pressing a little bit more than they usually do. We knew we had them right where we wanted them.”
Interestingly, although the Buckeyes ultimately proved successful and were confident in their defensive plans, Holtmann said they had actually practiced a second defensive scheme in case it would prove necessary. It sounds like that was a zone.
“We put in a secondary defense this week because we were so concerned about stopping them and slowing them down,” he said. “We put in a new one and spent some time on it. I’m always a little apprehensive to go to it. We would’ve if we’d have felt like we needed to and we almost did on a spot, but I just liked the rhythm we were in.”
This was the biggest upset win in Ohio State NCAA Tournament history, in part because this is the lowest seed the Buckeyes have ever been given.
It was plenty special to the Buckeyes for a number of reasons. For Keyshawn Woods, who finished with 19 points (12 of which came in the second half), it was essentially a picture-perfect way to make the NCAA Tournament debut he’d always hoped for.
Iowa State had reclaimed a lead at 54-53 with 3:37 to play, but Woods answered on the next possession with a leaning shot from the paint that rolled around before falling through. Then, after sophomore Musa Jallow came up with a momentum-changing steal, Woods finished the possession with a no-doubt-about-it three-pointer from the left corner to make it a four-point lead.
And with 18.7 seconds left, Woods hit both one-and-one free throws to set the final score.
“It lived up to (my hopes),” he said. “Now I just want to keep playing. I want to keep going. I want to keep playing with my brothers. I want to keep winning games and keep going as long as we can.”
Jackson, the team’s most-accomplished player, went 1 for 8 from the field and missed all five three-point attempts to finish with two points. This wasn’t how he wanted his Ohio State career to end.
“When it’s close like that, you’ve just got to as best you can move onto the next play no matter what,” he said. “I’m just happy my teammates made a couple plays and allowed me to play at least one more game.”
Holtmann, then, expanded on some of his thoughts. But first, the backstory.
Haters gonna hate
As a No. 5 seed last year, Ohio State was considered a trendy upset pick against No. 12 seed South Dakota State in Boise, Idaho. The Buckeyes ultimately prevailed, 81-73, and Holtmann couldn’t resist taking a little jab at all the doubters during his postgame press conference immediately after the game.
“I just want to thank all the find, smart, clever journalists that didn’t pick us,” he said then. “We’ve got some great ones out there, and trust me, our guys were aware of that.”
Before the game this time, Holtmann said he had been warned by friends to pick his words more wisely.
“I promised myself I would not do it, and when I got interviewed after the game I was so close,” he said. “I was going to call out one individual in particular and I had a couple coaching buddies who wished me good luck and they said at the end of it, ‘Whatever you do, do not repeat your postgame performance after the South Dakota State game last year’ so I said I wouldn’t do that.”
The temptation, though, nearly overcame him anyway.
“I get so angry when I read some of these national writers who put out there, ‘Well, they can’t do this and they can’t do that and they’ve lost this and lost that,’ ” he said. “It just drives me nuts, but I really do feel like we played well the last week and a half. Given the fact that we had a tough January and then we had some bumps in the road in February and March, that’s why it makes it so sweet.”
In his five NCAA Tournament appearances, the first three at Butler and now the last two at Ohio State, Holtmann has not lost his opening-round game. Those five games have been decided by an average of 8.2 points, with this three-point win representing the closest of the bunch.
“I think honestly, really good players that have committed to understanding what this time of year is about, and it’s about our team and it’s about playing and committing to playing a certain way,” he said when asked about that record. “It’s really good players who have committed to, you want to be a part of this time of year and play as long as you can, then you’ll commit to playing a certain way and our teams have really done that.
“A lot of those games have been close, but this is certainly up there in terms of ones that I’m so appreciative of, maybe as much as any.”
Big game for the big guy
Defensive worries aside, the Buckeyes were going to need a hefty dose of Kaleb Wesson to have a chance of scoring the upset. He finished with a double-double at 21 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, the latter of which doubled the best individual effort from any Iowa State player.
The Cyclones had few answers in their efforts to stop him, and it fed the Ohio State offense. Wesson was his usual modest self after the game, crediting his teammates for putting him in position to be effective and knocking down shots to help free him up more often.
His older brother said Kaleb was the key to helping the Buckeyes control the tempo against a team that wanted to run whenever it could.
“I mean, a big part of it was Kaleb,” Andre Wesson said. “Going into the game I know a big part of their game plan was probably to get him out and stretch the floor, but us throwing it into him and getting him the ball kind of slowed the game down. It didn’t allow them to run.”
Helping Kaleb be effective, however, were a few new eyes. Two of the three members of the officiating crew had not called a single Ohio State game this year, while the other had called just the UCLA win.
“Yeah, I felt like that helped a lot, just being able to play and not having to worry about ticky-tack fouls, little fouls,” he said.
*This was Ohio State’s first win against a top-20 team according to the KenPom.com national rankings.
*The Buckeyes have now won at least one game in 10 of their last 12 NCAA Tournament appearances.
*After committing 10 to that point, the Buckeyes committed just one turnover in the final 15:22 of the game.
*Jackson is two points away from reaching the 1,000-point mark for his career.
*Three Buckeyes made their NCAA Tournament debuts: sophomore Kyle Young and freshmen Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr.
Respect your roots
Earlier in the day, No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb pushed No. 1 seed Virginia before ultimately falling, 71-56.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs were Holtmann’s first head coaching, and he watched the entire game.
“I loved it,” he said. “I watched every moment of the Gardner-Webb game. I gave myself that two-hour window to not worry about anything else but watching the school that gave me my first head-coaching job. I texted Chuck Burtch, the AD, and he and I have talked this week. I texted Tim Craft and the SID before the game and I watched every moment of it. I was believing at halftime. I was a believer.”
“This league is the best I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve never seen a league top to bottom that is so hard to play in. I laughed when people talked about, ‘Well, Ohio State has…’ We had 20 league games. And we did have some losses and we did have some bumps, but guess what? When other teams go to 20 league games, you’re going to see more losses when you have a league this deep and this good. Give our league a lot of credit for preparing all of us.” – Holtmann, on the Big Ten going 7-1 in opening-round games