The three-point home loss to Minnesota six weeks and seemingly half a lifetime ago brought a number of questions to the forefront for the Ohio State men’s basketball team. Looming among them, as the Buckeyes let an 11-point second-half lead disappear, was the search for a group of guys who could close out a tight game.
Now, as winners of four straight and nine of their past 11 games, the Buckeyes have started to find a few answers when it comes to the end of games. In a pair of home wins during the past week, 19th-ranked Ohio State closed out both games by leaning on a hot lineup for the majority of the second half.
It wasn’t the same group that closed out both games, but the results were the same. And more important, so was the mentality that will be important as the Buckeyes close out the regular season this afternoon at No. 16 Michigan State.
"In January, when we were going through some struggles and we had a couple close losses at home, we were really searching for what is our closing lineup, and probably more importantly, what are we going to in the closing stretch?" coach Chris Holtmann said after Thursday’s 71-63 win over No. 23 Illinois. "We just didn’t know. It’s taken us a little while, but we’ve figured that out."
The issues were multifaceted. As the Buckeyes were struggling, they were again turning heavily inward toward proven scorer and go-to guy Kaleb Wesson. Teams adjusted and denied opportunities to get the ball inside the paint, which in turn put more pressure on a young backcourt with players being placed in new roles this season.
As the going got tough, the answers got tougher. Now, though, a shortened bench — a byproduct of a shortened roster — has started to answer the questions. Against Michigan, Holtmann put a lineup on the court of CJ Walker, Duane Washington Jr., Luther Muhammad, Andre Wesson and Kaleb Wesson with 7:42 to play and the lead at 54-52.
Those five, who also started the game, would finish against the Wolverines with a 23-11 run to close the game.
Then, against the Illini on Thursday, that same lineup save for freshman E.J. Liddell in place of Washington took the court trailing 46-40 with 13:19 to play, and remained together until Kaleb Wesson fouled out with 1:49 to go.
They turned that six-point deficit into an eight-point lead.
The fact that it was Liddell this time and not Washington was a product of how that group was playing in the moment, Holtmann said.
"We’re just playing with a lot of confidence right now," Andre Wesson said. "Just getting back to what we were doing earlier in the season, really. Playing more freely, playing more connected offensively, and we’re just trying to keep that going."
Things will change when Kyle Young returns to the lineup from his ankle injury and Holtmann has another important weapon to use. The hope is that his return will mesh seamlessly with the manner in which his teammates have played without him.
"We’ve been a real tough-minded group these last five weeks or whatever it’s been," Holtmann said. "Now, we’ll see if that continues. There’s no permanency to that. You’ve got to bring that each day to practice. That’s a muscle you grow."