Ohio State men's basketball | Notebook: Ahrens' breakout night in Iowa win buoys NCAA Tournament hopes
For Ohio State to secure its place on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, Tuesday night’s game against No. 22 Iowa loomed as golden opportunity.
The Buckeyes entered the game having lost all five games against ranked opponents this season and looking for a late-season, signature Quad 1 win. In came the Hawkeyes and the potential for a high-risk, high-reward type of game. Iowa brought an offense averaging 80.4 points per game this season, but also a defense allowing 72.6 – a figure that, in Big Ten play, actually climbed to 74.9 points per game.
As a result, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said the staff went in with the approach that it was going to have to find ways to attack Iowa and score enough points to give itself a chance.
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Even by those standards, and keeping that whole picture in mind, it was hard to picture the game unfolding in this way. Behind a career-defining, 29-point outburst from freshman Justin Ahrens, the Buckeyes poured in 90 points – their second-highest total of the year – in a 20-point home win.
It passes the rankings test, the analytic test and, perhaps as importantly as anything else, it passes the eye test. The 54 second-half points for the Buckeyes surpassed their totals in recent games against Michigan (49 points on Jan. 29) and Michigan State (44 points on Feb. 17).
Credit Ahrens, who put his name all over the record book for Ohio State freshmen. Credit Kaleb Wesson, who had his fourth double-double of the season with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Credit Duane Washington Jr.’s 10 points, Andre Wesson’s marathon performance and the entire team for nearly halving its turnover total from the first game against Iowa.
This was a big win for the Buckeyes.
“Obviously we understand there’s three games left to be played that are going to be extremely difficult,” Holtmann said. “I think we’re just trying to keep our focus on the task at hand and if we continue to get better hopefully our body of work will speak for itself. Obviously this was a home win against a very good team that’s had a very good season, so we acknowledge that, but unfortunately that’s not going to help us one bit when we play one of the best teams in our league on Saturday on the road.”
That would be Purdue, which hosts the Buckeyes on Saturday at 2 p.m. It’s the main thing Ahrens said was on his mind as he reflected on his night.
“That’s great, but we’re really just focused on punching our ticket to the tournament,” he said of his performance. “That’s really all that’s on our mind right now. We’re focusing on that and focusing on getting better day by day and we’re excited for it. Got to keep working. We don’t really talk about it much, but in the locker room we all know how bad we want to be there. If you don’t make the tournament it’s kind of a bummer. It’s not what you want to experience in college basketball.”
Added Kaleb Wesson: “It’s a big thing, going into the tournament you want wins like this, beating a good opponent, a ranked opponent like Iowa. There’s no easy wins in the Big Ten, so it was a good win tonight.”
This season, Ohio State was winless in five games against ranked teams. Its average margin of defeat was 13.4 points in those games. It had lost seven straight dating back to last season, with its last win against a top-25 team a stunning home throttling of No. 1 Michigan State on Jan. 7, 2018.
So, yes, this was a big night for the Buckeyes.
“I want them to enjoy this night, absolutely,” Holtmann said. “I want them to enjoy this night. I want them to enjoy playing the game and playing games that matter this time of year. We have a great opportunity here to play games that matter these last couple of weeks. I just think, we’re going to evaluate how we play win or lose and try to move forward from that. I’ve seen league play plenty of times, just one game doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything in the next game.”
Ahrens breaks through
It was only four games ago that Ahrens was an unused substitute in a 63-56 home loss to Illinois on Valentine’s Day. From there, he saw four minutes in the loss at Michigan State and did not appear during the first half of a 63-49 home win against Northwestern on Feb. 20. Then he started the second half, with Holtmann saying Ahrens was so engaged on the bench that he deserved the playing time.
He scored four points in that game. All of this is to say that nothing quite like Tuesday night’s performance seemed in the offing for the freshman, even after he scored nine points during the second half of Saturday’s road loss at No. 24 Maryland while making his first career start.
Ahrens entered Tuesday having scored 30 career Big Ten points in 12 appearances. He’d hit seven three-pointers in league play. Then against the Hawkeyes, he missed his first four, each of which looked good but didn’t fall.
Then they all started falling. He finished 6 for 10 from three, tying D’Angelo Russell for the program record for most threes in a game by a freshman. Russell did it three times. His 29 points tied him for the sixth-most by a freshman in program history, putting him on the same footing as Greg Oden (vs. Iowa on Jan. 20, 2007), Michael Redd (vs. Northwestern on Feb. 21, 1998) and JaQuan Lyle (vs. Indiana on Jan. 10, 2016).
“Boy had (nearly) 30, OK? It was just great,” Kaleb Wesson said. “You see him putting up extra shots after every game. It’s great to see that kind of stuff pay off.”
The early misses didn’t bother Ahrens.
“I always have a lot of confidence, I feel like,” he said. “It’s something I’ve trained myself to do since I was little. My dad always told me if you miss shots, you’ve got to move onto the next play. You can’t hang your head on it. If you make a bad play you can’t hang your head on it. You’ve got to get back to the next play and make something happen. Regardless, I’m going to be confident, but seeing my teammates hype me up like that, that was awesome.”
He also helped turn the momentum late in the first half when he nabbed a steal near midcourt, went in for the layup and was fouled by Nicholas Baer in the process. It counted, and Baer was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul, giving Ahrens an extra free throw and Ohio State the ball. He hit both for a four-point possession, and the Buckeyes closed the half on an 11-2 run of their own to hold a 36-33 lead at the break.
His shooting helped open up the offense, which players like Wesson were able to exploit.
“He’s obviously been really shooting it well,” Holtmann said. “He’s a kid that’s really grown as the season has went on. When you think about him a month ago, at the Michigan game, he’s different. He’s a different player. He still struggles in some areas defensively. We had to move him off of some guys tonight, but the thing I love about Justin is he’s a confident kid but his focus has been on the team playing well and finding a way to help the team play well. He’s lost himself in that, and I think he’s been rewarded because his focus has been that and he’s continually gotten better.
“That’s a long answer to obviously it opens some things up when you have a guy (do that). And our guys did a really good job of finding him in the back end of the press some.”
Jackson shakes off injury
His status was in doubt right up until gametime, but senior guard C.J. Jackson came off the bench and played through a shoulder injury to help the Buckeyes at both ends of the court. After missing the Maryland game with the injury, suffered against Northwestern, Jackson played 34:01 and had six points, five rebounds, six assists and just one turnover.
In the game at Iowa, Jackson had three assists and four turnovers as the Buckeyes committed 21 as a team.
“He was critical,” Holtmann said of Jackson. “C.J., I thought, 6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, defended with purpose, made (Jordan) Bohannon work. Then we had to switch him onto (Joe) Wieskamp, who was just killing us. That kids’ a heck of a player. We switched from Bohannon to Wieskamp and he just made him work. That gets lost in scoring 90 points and all that, but so important for us in this win.”
Bohannon was 2 for 8 from the floor and missed all five three-point attempts to finish with eight points. Wieskamp led Iowa with 17 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
“Last time we played these guys he struggled with the ball,” Holtmann said. “That’s part of why we changed our press, to give him a little more help in the backcourt. I thought his floor game was outstanding.”
When a reporter pointed out that Andre Wesson had played 40 minutes in the win, Holtmann said, “Did he play 40 minutes? I did not take him out?”
Further examination showed that he had sat for exactly six (6) seconds.
“That was a good blow,” Holtmann joked. “Plenty of time for a guy to get a little breather and get a second wind.”
In his time on the court, the older Wesson finished with 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting and had five rebounds, three assists, no turnovers and two blocks – one of which came in stunning fashion.
His chasedown block on Iowa’s Isaiah Moss with 4:27 left came after an Ahrens turnover, kept the lead at 11 points and had the crowd roaring.
“That was crazy,” Ahrens said. “I was at half court and I saw it. Coach always emphasizes moving onto the next play but when I saw that I was like (jaw drop). He just pinned it against the glass right by the square. That was a critical play in the game for us. They could’ve gotten momentum off of that and maybe gotten another steal.”
Added Holtmann, “Whoo. Andre’s block was a huge momentum play. It was getting tighter there. He has a real knack for that in timing situations. Andre, we’ll say (he’s) 6-6, 6-7, but his length really helps him play bigger. He has tremendous timing. I’ve seen it in practice a number of times, where guys have went and tried to punch on him and he’s timed it. The biggest thing was we got that ball back, because he’s blocked some in the past and we haven’t got it back. We scrambled and got it back. Huge play.”
So was this assist, too.
So Andre Wesson dished a no look pass off a rebound. pic.twitter.com/grZLim9I4A— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) February 27, 2019
“To coaches, I’m not going to sit here and say that a win like this is the same as winning a non-conference game early in the year against a team that is bottom third in Division I, because that wouldn’t be reality. This was a quality team that had put together a really good season and beaten a lot of people and we needed to prove that we were capable of winning a game like this. As far as what it does for us moving forward or any type of momentum, no. It was a really important win for us. Let’s see if we can get better in these next couple days of practice and prepare for Purdue.” – Holtmann