EAST LANSING, Mich. – Hearing a little Queen after a road game is usually not a good thing for a basketball team.
Sunday afternoon, No. 19 Ohio State came to the Breslin Center with no shot at capturing a Big Ten title. A stretch of six losses in seven games back at the beginning of the calendar year had already seen to that. No. 16 Michigan State, though, had plenty to play for including a share of a conference crown.
So when "We Are the Champions" started blaring as Ohio State guard CJ Walker started to speak with reporters outside of the visitors’ locker room, it meant the Spartans were celebrating an 80-69 win to close the regular season for both teams.
After having won four straight and nine of their last 11, it wasn’t how the Buckeyes had hoped to close the regular season. But it also wasn’t a return to doom and gloom for Ohio State, either.
"It’s hard not to be pleased with this last 5-6 weeks or whatever it’s been," coach Chris Holtmann said. "I think you look at today and say could we have just been a little more consistent with our defensive effort and on the glass. I think you always feel like that. When we were 12-7 (overall) and 2-6 (in the Big Ten) it was obviously some dark days and we were struggling. Every team in this league went through something like that, but ours and maybe a couple other teams were the most extreme.
"We tried to own how we could get better. We’ve seen great progress."
Again without Kyle Young, who missed his fourth game with an ankle injury, the Buckeyes dressed only eight available scholarship players and essentially played six of them. At times, it seemed as if the recent shorthanded run had taken its toll on the legs of some of Ohio State’s players.
Michigan State out-rebounded the Buckeyes 36-30 for the game and had a 10-0 advantage in second-chance points by halftime as the Buckeyes had earned just one offensive rebound. One game after setting a season-low with 15 three-point attempts, the best-shooting Big Ten team from deep only took 16 against the Spartans and hit five of them.
"It’s probably (fatigue), and you’re playing a really good team on the road on senior day," Holtmann said when asked about the rebounding struggles. "All those things. I thought we had our chances. We just couldn’t get enough stops there when we needed to. We’ve won games with a short bench. Did we look a little, I thought we looked a little fatigued in the half court defensively when they require so much effort to defend them. Give them credit for that."
Added Walker, "I don’t think we brought enough toughness today. They out-rebounded us a lot. It was aa lot of loose balls we didn’t get that they got. They hit the floor first. That affects the game in a lot of ways, get a lot of momentum and second-chance points. They had 10 second-chance points (at the half). That kind of dug ourselves a hole."
And yet, they would rally, at least for a while.
Trailing 38-32 at the break, Ohio State had the ball to open the second half and came out with a specifically scripted play that it executed flawlessly. It ended when senior forward Andre Wesson fed a streaking Duane Washington Jr. from the left wing with a pass that caught the sophomore under the basket and in stride. He finished the reverse layup after getting behind the Spartans defense, and it signaled that the Buckeyes weren’t going to roll over.
Washington said assistant coach Ryan Pedon drew it up.
"He drew it up and we went out there and executed it and it worked," the sophomore said. "It feels good to come out and get a bucket right away."
Taking things drawn up in huddles and timeouts has not always been a strength of this year’s team. It’s a critical ability that can pay big dividends come tournament time, and one Washington said the Buckeyes have gotten better at during the course of the season.
"Really confident in our guys and our coaching staff," he said. "We’ve got to trust what we’re doing and keep believing in each other and believing in the coaches."
Ohio State would have multiple chances to take a second-half lead but couldn’t get over the hump. After a Walker layup pulled the Buckeyes within 42-40 with 17:46 to play, Wesson was whistled for a charge when he pushed off against Kyle Ahrens on a drive to the basket on a possession that could’ve given them the lead.
Michigan State followed with a turnover that led to a Wesson three-pointer, but it didn’t fall and younger brother Kaleb was called for a foul on the rebound. On their next possession, still trailing by two, Andre Wesson finished a strong individual play by scoring through a foul to tie the game at 42 with 16:14 to play.
He missed the free throw, though, and Michigan State immediately scored on an Aaron Henry drive against the senior. Walker would miss a jumper, but after two Michigan State misses Kaleb Wesson hit a pair of free throws on a feed from his brother to tie the game again at 44-all with exactly 15 minutes to play.
Michigan State would nab two offensive rebounds on its next possession before Cassius Winston hit a jumper to reclaim the lead for good at 46-44, and after Kaleb Wesson missed a three-pointer Winston hit one of his own and Ohio State would get no closer than five points the rest of the way.
"They missed some shots in the second half early so we got a chance to cut the lead down and tie it up and maybe take the lead for a minute or two," Washington said. "They were getting a lot of calls and we were doing what we could, controlling the controllables and just trying to play hard."
Young again watched the Buckeyes from the bench with his right ankle in a walking boot, and Holtmann said it wasn’t a question of trying to save him for the postseason.
"I’m hopeful (we’ll get him back), but he 100% would not have been able to play today," the coach said. "This was not a case of holding him out for precautionary reasons; he 100% would not have been able to play today."
Had he been available, Young could have helped. Walker said his possible return for the Big Ten tournament would be a big boost.
"It would mean a lot," the junior said. "Everybody knows what Kyle brings to this team, whether it’s offensive or defensively. His effort is contagious. Everybody follows him when it comes to that thing, so it would mean a lot to have him back and give us extra plays, whether it’s on offense, defensive rebounding, no second-chance points, finishes around the rim, stuff like that. It would mean a lot to have him back."
Freshman forward Alonzo Gaffney also missed the game, his fourth. His absence has not been explained, but he could potentially return this season, too.
The spotlight on senior night went to Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, but Michigan State’s other prominent senior had a fun little moment during the final minute of the game.
With 3:05 to play, Kyle Ahrens entered the game with the Michigan State lead at 76-60. After an Ohio State timeout when Luther Muhammad hit a three-pointer with 2:20 to play, sophomore forward Justin Ahrens entered the game for the Buckeyes.
And with about a minute to play, the elder Ahrens had the ball at the top of the circle as his younger brother moved into defensive position. The other eight players on the court gave them space.
"It’s odd how that happened there with those two guys," Holtmann said. "It was probably something they’ve done in the backyard a thousand times."
The senior Ahrens couldn’t get past his brother and gave the ball up, only to have it back in his hands seconds later. His three-point attempt, the final one he will have in the Breslin Center, was off-line as his brother guarded him.
"It was good to see Justin get a stop there," Holtmann said. "That was what I took from that. I thought he took the challenge, fun, stayed engaged and had a good time with it."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, too, enjoyed the moment.
"It would’ve been cool if he would’ve gone by him and dunked it or made the three," he said. "But it was pretty cool. The players all said, ‘I think his brother’s going to guard him. Just let those two have it.’ That’s exactly what I did. Kyle deserves a lot."
*Ohio State finished with six assists, tying for a season low. The Buckeyes also had six in a 75-54 win at Nebraska on Feb. 27.
*The Buckeyes are 11-0 when hitting 10 or more threes and 10-10 when they don’t.
*In its last two games, Ohio State is a combined 8 for 31 (25.8%) from three.
*The Buckeyes finished with nine turnovers. Their totals in the prior four games: 10, 9, 9 and 11. That’s an average of 9.6 during their last five games compared to 13.0 through the first 26 games.
"You know you’ve got to make them miss shots. They made a lot of tough shots in the beginning, made a couple backboard threes. You’ve got to be able to face that adversity and know it’s going to be tough, especially today with senior night and the players they had and what they did for this program. You’ve got to be tough-minded, be defensively minded and get stops." – Walker, on preparing for Michigan State on senior day
"He's going to be a hell of a player there. We put a lot into trying to stop him." – Izzo, on Washington, who finished with a team-high 16 points