The adversity that Chris Holtmann has been looking for since the start of the season had arrived in full force.
Playing in its former home, St. John Arena, No. 10 Ohio State had let a 17-point second-half lead disappear and was trying to fend off a dogged upset charge from an undefeated Kent State team. The score was tied at 48 with roughly 10 minutes left after a 16-2 run by the Golden Flashes when sophomore guard Luther Muhammad turned the tide with two trips to the free-throw line.
The first time, he hit both to reclaim the lead. The second time, he hit three. It was the start of a 17-0 run that clinched a 71-52 win for the Buckeyes, and Holtmann credited the echoes of the program’s past for some of the necessary mojo in the moment.
“This place was loud,” he said. “St. John Arena was fantastic. I don’t want to forget that. I did think that the energy of this place made a difference in a stretch where we needed it. I don’t know what the numbers were tonight: I’m just glad we played a game like this that we knew was going to be competitive because our fans were unbelievable.”
To be clear, this wasn’t last year’s event. When the Buckeyes returned to the arena last season, the game became an event with a clear theme. Ohio State billed it as a throwback game, one complete with retro scoreboard graphics, corresponding pregame music and the debut of special scarlet jerseys that became hot sellers as the season went on.
The game was a sellout, announced at 13,276 even though roughly 30 percent of season-ticket holders didn’t show. The university made the game optional for that group this season, and partly as a result, Ohio State was selling $5 tickets the morning of the game. Instead of special jerseys, the Buckeyes wore the gray alternate uniforms they donned for multiple games last season.
This year’s game wasn’t played the night before a home football game against Michigan, like it was last year. This was a 6:30 p.m. start on a Monday, neither of which typically bode well for attendance. By the time the game was underway, the lower sections were mostly full but the uppermost reaches had nearly a half-dozen sections that were empty. The announced attendance for this game: 8,850, a decrease of 4,426 fans.
That’s roughly an attendance drop of 33 percent.
But when it mattered, those in attendance got loud and Holtmann took notice.
With the win, Ohio State moves to 237-80 against teams from Ohio. Its last home loss to an in-state team came Dec. 22, 1994, when Bowling Green won on this same floor, 59-50.
Since then, the Buckeyes have lost two games to in-state opponents, and neither were at home. They went to Toledo and lost 64-63 on Dec. 5, 1998, then suffered a 60-59 NCAA Tournament loss to Dayton on March 20, 2014.
In Columbus, the Buckeyes are 179-30 against Ohio teams and have won 22 straight at home.
Kent State, meanwhile, last beat a ranked team when it knocked off No. 23 Saint Mary’s 65-57 on Feb. 23, 2009. Its last win against a top-10 team came in the 2002 NCAA Tournament when it beat No. 9 Pittsburgh 78-73 in overtime in the Sweet Sixteen.
Winning with style
When Ohio State beat Cleveland State in this arena last year, Holtmann dipped into the throwback theme himself with a salmon-colored suit coat. He did not break it out for another game during the season, and he was coy entering this year’s game as to whether it would make a return.
Well, it did — and it also indicates that the Buckeyes will continue to return to their former home at least once a season.
“If it was up to my wife, I’d wear it every game,” he said. “She loves it. You know, I love playing games in this place. I like the throwback uniforms. This is my attempt at a throwback look, as bad as it is. I think I’m going to save it for St. John every year. It’s kind of fun doing it.”
One player did take notice of his wardrobe choice.
“The players talked about what uniforms they were going to wear,” Holtmann said. “We had a conversation about whether we were going to wear the throwback grays or the throwback scarlet. They’re more concerned about that. I did have CJ Walker come up to me right before the game, because I guess it’s the first time he saw it, and he goes, ‘That’s nice, coach.’ That means something when a player says that.”
Washington waved off
His arms outstretched, Duane Washington Jr. stood in the left corner of Ohio State’s offensive half and smiled.
Consecutive possessions during the final minute of the first half had resulted in turnovers when, with seconds remaining, teammate Andre Wesson flung the ball upcourt in hopes of finding an opportunity. He found Washington, who, running away from the basket, managed to bank in an off-balance, circus shot that got the crowd at St. John Arena roaring while he savored the applause.
Then video replay waved off the basket, giving the Buckeyes a 35-23 halftime lead against the visiting Golden Flashes.
So did he think the shot had counted?
“I thought it was good,” he said. “I got into the locker room and (program assistant Andrew) Dakich told me it wasn’t good. I was like, ‘ugh,’ but it is what it is.”
The officials didn’t wave off a highlight alley-oop Washington tossed to freshman guard D.J. Carton, who slammed it home to push the lead to 63-48.
“It was so fast,” Washington said. “He got in front of me somehow. It was crazy. I was super hyped. I couldn’t show it, though, because we had to get back on D, but when we got to the locker room we dabbed each other up.”
Liddell answering the call
For the first time this season, Kaleb Wesson found himself in early foul trouble. With 11:47 to play and the Ohio State lead trimmed to four points at 48-44, he was called for a charge and headed to the bench with his fourth foul.
He was replaced by freshman E.J. Liddell, who was on the court for the first seven points of Ohio State’s 17-0 game-changing run. On a night when Holtmann’s rotations tightened for the first time this season, Liddell was one of eight players to see action.
Each played for at least 20:31. As one of three reserves, Liddell finished with six points despite missing 4 of 6 free throws and had five rebounds. He also turned it over three times, but his ability to hold down important late minutes was judged by Holtmann to have been another sign of progress.
“I think he’s taking strides,” Holtmann said. “We really needed him taking strides. He did have some turnovers off charges. We’ve got to get him making free throws a little better and shooting a little better. He tried to drive it tonight, got fouled a couple times. I liked the fact that in a game like this he got to the line six times. His development … is going to be really critical for us.”
The close game meant sophomore Justin Ahrens, who was celebrating his 20th birthday, and freshmen Alonzo Gaffney and Ibrahima Diallo did not play. All three are still in the process of trying to establish roles on this team, but it’s rare that high-level teams can play more than eight or nine players on a given night. Ahrens continues to progress from a pair of herniated discs that cost him the entire summer, while Gaffney and Diallo are still working on consistency and development.
The Buckeyes have more depth than they’ve had in recent years, and with that will come nights where guys won’t play. The interesting question going forward is if — or how — those three unused substitutes can force their way into the conversation.
Before he took any questions, Kent State coach Rob Senderoff had a few words for Ohio State strength and conditioning coach Quadrian Banks.
“Whoever their strength coach (is) deserves a raise,” he said. “That dude, these guys are ridiculously physical and tough. I recruited Kyle Young when he was in high school. To see the transformation of that kid physically and the rest of these guys, I mean, I think he deserves a raise. I’ll probably piss Chris Holtmann off or whoever it may be, but they are a tough, physical team.”
The game was as physical as any the Buckeyes have played this season. Seemingly each drive to the basket was met with a thud of at least one body pounding into the hardwood, and at one point the players had to be separated as Ohio State’s Andre Wesson and Kent State’s Anthony Roberts were involved in a second-half confrontation underneath the Buckeye basket.
“Basically, shout-out to coach Q,” Muhammad said. “He does a super fantastic job. He prepares for every game top-notch. That’s just being the more tougher team. We knew coming into this game it was really aggressive on the boards, driving. They weren’t going to quit. With teams like that, you’ve got to match their energy and set the rules from the start. I’m not going to say we set the rules from start to finish, it went back and forth, but that’s just being the more tougher team.”
“Go Bucks — and beat that fricking team up north.” — Holtmann, exiting his news conference