LINCOLN, Neb. – Chris Holtmann and Kaleb Wesson had something they needed to sit down and discuss.
It was Thursday afternoon and the game between No. 23 Ohio State and Nebraska was looming. So, too, were the criticisms Maryland coach Mark Turgeon had lobbed at Wesson in the aftermath of Sunday's win by the Buckeyes. After the Terrapins coach had described Wesson as a “bully” for his physical play against Jalen Smith, and then backed up those comments in a pair of subsequent interviews, the chance for that perception to have an impact on Wesson's game was present.
When the coach and center sat down Thursday, they had one thing to talk about.
“We sat down today and watched some video, he and I,” Holtmann told The Dispatch immediately after a 75-54 win against the Cornhuskers at Pinnacle Bank Arena. “We play through him so much, the ball's in his hands so much, he's second on our team in assists in league play, we just showed the areas where he's made really good decisions with the ball and some other areas where he hasn't. Can we take a step forward in that area?
“That was all we really talked about.”
In other words, the ongoing back-and-forth between the Terrapins and Buckeyes was present everywhere but within Wesson's mental space. With Turgeon's remarks continuing to draw attention, Wesson set new career highs in attempted free throws (13) and rebounds (18), scoring a team-high 16 points in a relatively drama-free win against overmatched Nebraska.
If Turgeon's words had Wesson reconsidering how he might be officiated under potentially increased scrutiny, he didn't admit to it.
“I feel like if I go out there and play the way I play, very physical play, skill, finesse, that's how I'm going to do it,” Wesson said, standing outside the visitors' locker room.
Wesson finished with 15 points and nine rebounds in the win against the Terrapins. It wasn't until after Ohio State's players finished their media responsibilities that Turgeon took center stage at Value City Arena.
Word of what the coach said reached Wesson through social media, he said.
“I don't really pay attention to stuff like that, what other people say about me or how they feel about how I play,” he said. “I feel like if I go out there and play the way I've played throughout my career, I'll be successful.”
Standing to Wesson's right, sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr. laughed when his teammate was asked about the bully comment.
“When I heard it I just thought of a bully in a good term, just the beast, controlling the game out there and doing what he wants,” said Washington, who finished with 14 points. “That's what I thought about it, but then I read into it and they were trying to say the bad bully. It's just noise. Just chirping. We stayed together, stayed in the locker room and tried not to let that stuff get into what we've got going on right now.”
As Ohio State's interviews were winding down Wednesday in Columbus, Holtmann closed by offering an unprompted defense of Wesson and his style of play while criticizing Turgeon for how he characterized the Buckeye.
Wesson said the gesture meant a lot.
“Me and coach have a special relationship,” he said. “He does stuff like that because he really cares about us and he doesn't want our names to be tarnished in any way. I really appreciate that. A lot of coaches around the nation might not do that for their players. Him being able to come forward about that and show how he feels about that, I like that.”
Holtmann said he had considered addressing Turgeon's comments with Wesson but decided to just “let Kaleb be Kaleb” when it came time to play.
“I didn't want him to put too much into it,” the coach said. “I didn't want one man's opinion to shape how he was going to play, one way or the other. I spoke what I said about those comments and feel that way. I felt like he had a good approach, good mind-set.”
It wasn't the only reference to the seemingly simmering feud between Holtmann and Turgeon. After the Terrapins won a Wednesday night game at Minnesota, Turgeon complained about the 9 p.m. Eastern start for a weekday game.
Thursday, the Buckeyes tipped off against the Cornhuskers at 9 p.m. Eastern. During his opening statement, Holtmann finished with the following.
“It was obviously a later tip, a 9 p.m. tip, which was great,” he said. “Gave our guys a chance to get in here, get a shoot-around. I feel great about being a 9 p.m. tip.”
Ohio State entered this game undefeated in games where it had made 10 or more three-pointers, winning all 10 such games. And it looked to be well on its way to adding to that number, in large part to the early play of Washington.
The sophomore opened Ohio State's scoring with a three-pointer on his team's first possession of the game. Then, on the next possession, he hit another three. And then, after Luther Muhammad turned the ball over on a poor post feed attempt to Wesson, Washington buried a third one for good measure.
“It felt good,” he said of the hot start. “The first one was a great pass from my teammates. I shot pretty good in warmups, so I was pretty confident like I always am. The guys found me in good spots and I shot it with confidence and was able to knock a few down early.”
As a team, the Buckeyes would make nine of their first 11 shots and build a 28-12 lead during the first 10 minutes of the game. On this night, it was all the cushion they would need.
“It feels great when all your hard work pays off during the week, all your extra shots you put in, all the extra shots Duane puts in,” Wesson said. “Him hitting those early shots really propelled us into our offense and even our defense.”
Nebraska struggled at a high level for much of the game to run much of anything in the way of offense. The Cornhuskers spent most of their time trying to spread the Buckeyes out and drive the lane, an approach met with mixed success and hampered by a poor shooting effort.
Nebraska wouldn't hit a three-pointer until the second half and was 0 for 6 during the first half. Ohio State's fast start pushed it out of reach early.
“(Duane) has helped us in a couple games get off to really good starts,” Holtmann said. “He's got a good mind-set about him, whether he starts or comes off the bench. Those threes that he hit really gave us some confidence early because they're a fast-starting team as well. We realized that. We've not always gotten off to great starts, particularly on the road.”
The Buckeyes wouldn't hold that early success rate, however. After opening 9-for-11 from the field, the Buckeyes would miss their next 10 shots. They would miss 18 of their final 19 threes for the game and yet still win by 21 points.
Ohio State finished 6 for 25 (24.0%) from three for the game, its second-worst mark of the season.
“Most of those came early,” Holtmann said of his team's threes. “We are a really good-shooting team. We just missed some open ones tonight. They do a really good job flying at you, too.”
The lopsided nature of the game gave Holtmann a chance to get a few seldom-used guys into the game.
Freshman Ibrahima Diallo, who entering the night had played in only six games totaling 37 minutes, saw some action late in the first half and recorded a block of a Nebraska three-point attempt. He finished with 2:24 of playing time, scoring his first career Big Ten points on a layup from the right block during the second half.
Nebraska's student section, with the outcome already decided, began chanting for Ohio State senior walk-on Danny Hummer to enter the game. Holtmann obliged with 1:51 to play, and he would score on a left-handed runner in the paint for only his second career Big Ten field goal.
Thursday will mark Hummer's senior day, and you can read an in-depth feature on his journey by clicking here.
Sophomore walk-on Harrison Hookfin made his second career Big Ten appearance when he checked in for the final 29 seconds.
“It feels really good. We worked really hard this week and we were prepared to come out and play hard on the road and try to add to our resume and get a Big Ten road win. We know they're hard in this conference and I think we were really prepared. We were ready to play.” – Washington, on the win