IOWA CITY, Iowa – The hallway outside the visitors’ locker room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena hasn’t recently been friendly to Ohio State point guards.
It’s been especially true should those guards go by C.J., periods or not. Last season, after a 72-62 loss at Iowa, it was senior C.J. Jackson who was fighting back tears while trying to explain a third straight loss in what would become a five-game losing streak that threatened to derail the entire season.
Thursday night’s loss wasn’t that. Against the No. 20 Hawkeyes, the No. 25 Buckeyes had their two-game winning streak ended with an 85-76 defeat against an Iowa team that came as advertised. Feeding off friendly rims and their faithful fans, the Hawkeyes jumped out to an 18-3 lead and never looked back.
They did it against an Ohio State defense that wasn’t doing nearly enough to try and stop them from getting comfortable. It was an effort deemed unacceptable by coach Chris Holtmann and his players, and one of them stepped to the forefront to take responsibility.
It was junior point guard CJ Walker.
"It was just one of those days we didn’t come out," he told The Dispatch. "Put that on the captains and the starters. We just didn’t come out with energy and it just kind of fell off from there."
The words came from nearly the exact same place where Jackson had tried to explain a season that was seemingly falling apart around him. Walker’s instead reflected a poor start, one that the Buckeyes would remedy as the game progressed but never to the point where they could seriously threaten their hosts.
Holtmann said the Buckeyes lacked "bite" in the opening minutes. Walker said they were missing "Just our energy. Just our toughness and our identity as a team. Defensively, we just didn’t come out with that energy or effort."
That would change as the game went on, but it was too late. The surprise is that such an effort came under these circumstances.
After all, this is an Iowa team that entered the game with the third worst defensive efficiency rating in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes will occasionally make the effort to play defense, but they most likely are going to try to outscore opponents.
The Buckeyes, to their credit, had just put up their best defensive efficiency rating in two years when they dispatched Purdue at Value City Arena five days prior.
"That’s on us, though," Holtmann said. "It was a game where we had to make them miss and we didn’t make them miss enough. Proud of the way our guys fought back. We were able to give ourselves a chance but just never really had enough bite to us defensively to be able to get enough stops to get it within two possessions."
There were almost a few chances. Ohio State got within nine points not even three minutes into the second half but had four straight empty possessions. Then after falling behind by 19 again later in the half, they scored 26 of their points in the final 6:16 of the game.
"Really disappointed with the first five minutes, but I thought our guys competed for a large stretch of the game," Holtmann said. "Really, outside that first five minutes I thought they really competed. We’ve just got to play smarter. When you’re down eight or nine on an opponents’ floor and you know they play well, we didn’t play smart enough at times. Obviously, I think a positive coming out of it is that our guys, I thought they competed through the buzzer."
Carton returning to Ohio State
As The Dispatch first reported earlier in the day, Holtmann confirmed that freshman guard and Iowa native D.J. Carton is returning to Ohio State after taking a break from the team to address mental health issues.
Carton has a long journey to get back to being able to participate in a team meeting or activity, much less take part in a game.
"D.J., he’s returning to school," Holtmann said after the game. "The biggest thing for him is we want him to get on a path towards better health. That’s really all of our concern right now. The idea of anything beyond that, he’s got to get re-acclimated to school. That’s going to require some stuff. Meet with our medical staff. That’s our only concern. We’re happy he’s returning. We’re excited to have him back."
Although the Buckeyes got to Iowa on Wednesday night, staying in Cedar Rapids, and Carton left for Columbus on Thursday, the players did not see the Bettendorf native while on the trip.
"D.J. brings a lot of energy to us and he’s a very positive person," freshman forward E.J. Liddell said. "I feel like he’s going to give us a lot more energy and make us feel better and we’ll welcome him home with open arms."
When Duane Washington Jr. hit a pair of free throws with 5:34 to play, it marked the first points of the game for Ohio State’s second-leading scorer.
From that point on, Washington would score all 15 of his points to help the Buckeyes close with a bit of a flourish. Until that point, Washington had missed all seven of his shots, four of which were threes and one of which hit the side of the backboard from the left corner.
It was an unusual performance for Washington, who at times struggled to hold onto the ball and seemed to struggle finding a rhythm until the final minutes.
"He struggled early," Holtmann said. "I was glad he came back with a little bit better rhythm there at the end of the game. He was sick two days ago, had the flu two days ago, but I don’t think he’d want that as an excuse. He just didn’t play well early. Fortunately he responded with some better moments."
Garza the Great
He wasn’t the reason Iowa won, but Luka Garza finished with at least 20 points for his eighth straight Big Ten game. He led all scorers with 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting, marking the most effective performance of his career against Ohio State.
Entering the game, Garza had averaged 13.8 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting 58.6% (17 of 29) from the field in four games against the Buckeyes. He finished with six rebounds in this game.
He was obviously a major part of Ohio State’s scouting report.
"He’s in great shape," Holtmann said when asked how Garza compares to years prior. "He’s in incredible condition. He’s expanded his game, but his fitness level is probably the most significant difference."
Liddell, who spent portions of the game guarding Garza and finished with career-high marks of 17 points and eight rebounds while drawing a team-high six fouls, said he’s hard to prepare to play against.
"What we saw on film, he’s a really good player and his stats show it," Liddell said. "Just how hard he plays shows it, but preparing for the national player of the year, Ibrahima Diallo played him in practice. You can’t compare them, because he’s a top-5 candidate for national player of the year. (Ibrahima) did his best job to prepare us for what we were going to see, but Luka’s a good player so I’ll give him props."
Diallo, a 6-foot-10 freshman center from Senegal, has made six appearances this season totaling 37 minutes. He has played in just one Big Ten game, which is his only appearance since he played in a 32-point win against Southeast Missouri back on Dec. 17.
"He plays hard," Liddell said of Diallo. "He works very hard, and his time is going to come very soon."
Keep checking BuckeyeXtra.com for a story on Liddell in the coming days.
"Just make sure everybody stays together. Stay connected so that nobody separates. It’s a tough season in the Big Ten, so just make sure we stick together. We’ve been through a lot so far and there’s nothing we can’t get through, so try to emphasize that and continue from there." — Walker, when asked what he will do during the next few days to make sure the Buckeyes have a better showing at home against No. 7 Maryland on Sunday.