TULSA, Okla. – The emotion of Ohio State’s 2018-19 men’s basketball season was sitting on a foldout chair in the corner of a cramped locker room inside the BOK Center.
Not even an hour earlier, the Buckeyes had bowed out of the NCAA Tournament with a 74-59 loss to Houston in the second round of the Midwest regional. Against a quicker, faster and ultimately better team, No. 11 seed Ohio State trailed for all but 5:25 of the game and spent the entire second half trailing by at least two possessions against No. 3 seed Houston.
It was a somber scene inside the locker room. And if there was anyone who could speak to what the program had been through, what the game meant and what the future looked like, it was the longest-tenured player on the roster: walk-on Joey Lane, the only four-year member of the roster.Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
Red-eyed with a face largely obscured by a towel he’s waved from the end of the bench for so long, Lane had just shared a final message to his fellow members of a group that billed itself as “Team 120.”
What did he tell them?
“I told these guys, these first two years that I was here I put my heart and soul into the team and the program and really didn’t get anything in return,” he told The Dispatch, his voice wavering. “When this new coaching staff came here and these guys came here, the past two years, I didn’t change anything from my end. The fact that they listened to me and respected me and encouraged me and let me be a leader and then seeing the success this team had, I’m without words for how awesome that made me feel and how special this group of guys is.
“The truth of the matter is no one expected us to be here, and the fact that we not only got to the NCAA Tournament and got a win, got an upset, it’s a pretty cool thing for this group.”
The Buckeyes were widely projected to miss the NCAA Tournament in Chris Holtmann’s second season. Billed as a rebuilding year, there wasn’t a lot of external belief that this team would have the pieces necessary to get back into March Madness, much less to win a game.
Yet, there they were Sunday night, battling against a Houston team with three losses on the season for a chance to return to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in six years. It ended on a night where the Buckeyes couldn’t penetrate against a suffocating Cougars defense and couldn’t come up with enough stops to give themselves a chance.
It ended with Lane on the floor for the final 21 seconds. With 15 seconds left on the clock, the senior fired up the final shot of the season, a three-pointer from the right wing with a defender in his face.
It rimmed out.
“I thought it was good, too,” he said of the shot. “I thought it was short, but when it was there I thought it was going to go in. Well, whatever: I made my first three and missed my last three. That’s kind of brutal, but it happens.”
That marked one final memory on the court for a senior who had played occasional meaningful regular-season minutes for the only season in his career. The chance to close out the season was meaningful for Lane for a number of reasons, but for one in particular.
“It kept me from crying a little longer, that’s for sure,” he said with a wry smile. “To play in the NCAA tournament is every kid’s dream. While it didn’t feel like I was playing in there because it was virtually over, it was really special. Special is the word I’d use for this group of guys, for my time here.”
For the season, the Cougars entered Sunday night’s game allowing teams to shoot only 27.5 percent from three-point range. Only two teams had made double-digit three-point attempts against them this season.
Ohio State finished 10 for 29 from deep (34.5 percent) from three, taking only 41.8 percent of its field goals from inside the arc. For the season, the Buckeyes had taken 60.4 percent of their shots from two-point range.
The discrepancy in this game came from how the Cougars were not only defending the post but trapping out of it.
“It wasn’t a challenge trying to get the ball inside, it was more them coming with the trap afterwards,” junior forward Andre Wesson said. “It was them trapping and then their rotations after, that’s what probably bothered us.”
One game removed from a 21-point, 12-rebound performance in a three-point win against Iowa state, sophomore center Kaleb Wesson finished with 15 points and six rebounds.
“One of the keys on their scouting report was to not let me have one of those games again,” he said. “I just feel like that was a key and they really focused on me today.”
He was 2 for 6 from three and 3 of 7 from the field overall, meaning all but one of his shots came from beyond the arc. He also was fouled 11 times, going 7 for 10 from the line.
Early in the game, the Buckeyes actually ran a screen to get him an open look from three.
“It was more a by-product of we felt like he would get a clean look,” Holtmann said. “That was really the reason on that action. We knew it would be very hard to get him long-post, outer-third touches because they were going to send multiple bodies and we thought potentially we could create some scoring opportunities; we just had a hard time kicking it out of the trap.”
“Kaleb Wesson has even shot attempts, six of them threes. That means we won that battle,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “If we got him taking threes, that’s a good thing for us.”
The Ohio State roster that departed the BOK Center on Sunday night featured eight scholarship players slated to return next season to be coached by Holtmann and assistants Terry Johnson, Ryan Pedon and Mike Schrage.
However, given the nature of life in college basketball, it’s unlikely there won’t be at least one or two changes before next year’s team opens the season at home against Cincinnati.
“I think you always experience some change across the board in your program in an offseason,” Holtmann said. “That’s expected now in college basketball, right? We anticipate that there will be some of that. What it looks like, I’m not sure and haven’t put a ton of thought into, but it’s an expectation now in college basketball.”
Pedon and Johnson both interviewed for the Butler job after Holtmann was hired at Ohio State, and Schrage is well-respected among coaching circles. Any or all of them could be future head coaches, possibly as soon as next season.
“We’ll see with our staff,” Holtmann said. “I have an incredible staff and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone does reach out to them.”
Currently constructed, Ohio State is slated to return 70.9 percent of its scoring, 79.6 percent of its rebounding, 70.9 percent of its minutes played and 57.3 percent of its assists.
That Ohio State got this far was in many ways a testament to the level at which graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods played down the stretch. In his final five games leading into the Houston game, Woods had averaged 15.4 points to help the Buckeye secure their postseason bid.
It was harder going against the Cougars, however. After playing all but 35 seconds of the win against the Cyclones two days prior, Woods finished with 10 points in 36:12 but was only 4 for 11 from the floor and 1 for 5 from three-point range.
As the game wound down, he seemed to be running out of gas. It was a notion he didn’t necessarily agree with, but not one he entirely disputed, either.
“Here and there, maybe,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe, but more importantly, I let my team down today. That’s part of the reason why (we lost).”
How did he feel he let his team down?
“I didn’t play to my best potential, and I feel like if I play to my best potential we don’t lose that game, and that’s on both ends,” he said. “I put that on me, and I told them that if I played better on both ends, we win that game.”
*Ohio State has not won back-to-back games against higher-seeded teams in the NCAA tournament since it beat No. 1 Auburn and No. 3 St. John’s in St. Petersburg, Fla., in the 1999 Sweet Sixteen. The Buckeyes were a No. 4 seed that season, ultimately reaching the Final Four.
*The game was played on freshman Duane Washington’s birthday.
*With his first points of the game, which came on a three-pointer, senior guard C.J. Jackson passed 1,000 for his career. He ends with 1,016 after scoring a team-high 18. He is the 58th Ohio State player to reach that mark and ends his career at No. 55 in all-time scoring, just ahead of Lenzelle Smith (1,014), Chris Jent (1,007) and Sam Thompson (1,001).
*Each of Ohio State’s five starters hit at least one of the first seven threes.
“I think it’ll take some time, just because you’re obviously disappointed. As a coach you’re always looking at could we have done some things differently, better, but listen: I think that I’m really proud of our group. I’m incredibly proud of this team, maybe as much as any team I’ve ever coached. I’ve really enjoyed coaching them. We’ve had our rough days, but to be one of the final 32 teams standing, and I thought we competed tonight really well, we just couldn’t quite get it to where we needed to in the second half.” – Holtmann, on the legacy of this team.