It’s hard to imagine Chris Holtmann and his players having the same reactions to this type of game had it been played two months prior.
Consider it the most recent reflection of what life is like in the Big Ten. Three days removed from a 13-point loss at Wisconsin that was largely noncompetitive, Ohio State returned to Value City Arena to host the best Rutgers team in at least 30 years with a chance to pull within one game of .500 in league play.
Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
Roughly 25 minutes into what would become a 72-66 win Wednesday night, the Buckeyes were rolling. The lead stretched to 20 points, and the remainder of the game looked to be a formality against the Scarlet Knights, who entered the game having scored 63 and 51 points, respectively, in their past two conference losses.
Instead, Ohio State started to rush a few shots, Rutgers started to hit some of its own and the lead was eventually cut to three points in the final minute before some clutch free-throw shooting sealed the win for the Buckeyes.
That same script would’ve been a cause for concern, a chance for Holtmann to hammer home a few lessons of tough love, when things were going well and Ohio State was ascending the national rankings.
Those days are long gone.
"One of our core values is you’re always learning from wins and losses from every moment," Holtmann said. "Every moment is a teachable moment. We’ve got stuff we’ve got to do better from this game. We did a lot of things really well. We’ve got to take both and move forward. It certainly wasn’t a downtrodden locker room, and I didn’t want it to be.
"Having said that, I think they know we have to ... play better moving forward. Hopefully in our next game we will."
There was plenty to quibble about. At one point, Rutgers made seven straight field goals to cut an 18-point Ohio State lead down to six with 2:09 to play. The Scarlet Knights would finish 9 for 21 (42.9%) from three-point range, their second-best such night of the season, after entering the game shooting 29.3% from beyond the arc in Big Ten play.
Ohio State’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 103.5 was its fifth-worst of the year and the second-highest total it has allowed and still won.
"I did not love our defensive approach in the second half," Holtmann said. "I just didn’t. But, I think overall listen we’ve got to do some things better. There’s no question. But give them credit. We were sloppy with the ball a few times late and I just didn’t love our defensive connectedness and I didn’t think offensively we finished enough plays in the second half, but sometimes you’ve got to survive games like this. You’ve got to make just enough plays, and we did that."
When the Buckeyes built their 20-point lead, they led 55-35 with 13:05 to play. They were only two points shy of what they scored in the entirety of the loss to the Badgers, and they were shooting exactly 50.0% (19 for 38) when they hit 55 points.
For the final 13:05, Ohio State went 3 for 13 (23.1%) from the floor.
Ohio State finished with 11 turnovers after committing only four during the first half. The Buckeyes shot 31.8% in the second half compared to 51.7% in the first.
But they won.
"A win’s a win," senior Andre Wesson said. "Obviously it didn’t go the way that we wanted it to, giving up that big of a lead, but in the Big Ten wins are hard to come by so you’ve got to take it."
Late in the second half, Kyle Young took an awkward fall while drawing contact on the offensive end of the court and came up limping.
The junior forward remained in the game and played all but six seconds in the final 6:48, finishing with four points from the free-throw line and five rebounds in 26:06. Young has been on a minutes restriction in practice as the coaching staff monitors him to try and prevent a reoccurrence of the stress fracture in his lower right leg that limited him for most of the second half of last season, and Holtmann said he didn’t know if this Rutgers game aggravated that situation.
"I don’t know what specifically he was feeling," Holtmann said. "I don’t know if it was an ankle. We’ve got concerns about his leg, and I’m hoping it’s not that. I’m hoping it was something else."
Young was wearing red kinesiology tape on his right leg during the game for the first time this season.
Tale of two halves
During the first half, sophomore wing Justin Ahrens buried three three-pointers in nine minutes’ worth of playing time to help push the Buckeyes to their 15-point lead at the break.
Then, during the second half, Ahrens did not attempt a shot and was only on the court for five minutes.
"He wasn’t defending very well in the second, so he didn’t play a whole lot," Holtmann said. "But I thought he was great in the first half. Guys found him for open looks. That happens. He had really open looks. His late three was critical."
Ahrens didn’t attempt a three-pointer in 16 minutes at Wisconsin on Sunday but is 11 for his last 16 (68.8%) from three during the last five games.
"He’s shooting the ball with such great confidence right now," Holtmann said. "Regardless of if it goes in or not, I just love the confidence he’s shooting with. And guys are looking for him, but he didn’t play as many minutes in the second half."
The game took place as a winter storm moved into central Ohio, putting a damper on an announced attendance of 15,552.
Holtmann opened his press conference by praising those who were inside the arena and offering them a promise.
"I want to begin by thanking our fans," he said. "I’m a Midwesterner. I’ve seen snow, but we had some rough conditions out there, almost blizzard-like. Appreciate everybody who came out on a night when the conditions were not great. I would love to, give me your ticket stub sometime and I’ll buy you a drink. I didn’t say a beer, I said a drink. I know our team does really appreciate everybody who came out on a night when the roads were not great."
* Luther Muhammad finished 2 for 3 from three-point range. Ohio State is 12-2 all-time when Muhammad hits two or more threes.
* Rutgers scored 42 points off its bench, with Jacob Young leading the team overall at 17 points.
* Duane Washington Jr. tied a career high with five assists. He tied CJ Walker, who was 1 for 9 from the floor and missed all six three-pointers he attempted, for the team lead.
* Andre Wesson had his second career double-double with 13 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
"The Ten. It’s obviously the best league in the country right now. They’re talking about putting more than six, seven teams in the tournament right now. You can see between the three spot and the 10 spot is all separated by three games. You don’t see that a lot around the country." – junior center Kaleb Wesson on the challenge of winning in the Big Ten this year