Inside the last 38.1 seconds that sent Ohio State to another loss
The two huddles were separated by a little more than 50 feet on the court Thursday night at Value City Arena.
One was occupied by an Ohio State team desperately trying to shake the shackles of a stunning six-game slide featuring five losses. At the other end, the second was occupied by a Minnesota team trying to do something it hadn't done in this arena in more than 15 years: win a game.
The score was tied at 59. The Buckeyes had the ball. The clock showed 38.1 seconds remaining and 25 on the shot clock when Ohio State sent a lineup of CJ Walker, D.J. Carton, Duane Washington, Andre Wesson and Kaleb Wesson onto the court with a plan.
“Demeanor was great,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “Yeah, demeanor was great.”
At the other end, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino preached the importance of getting a rebound to his players.
“They were pretty calm,” he said. “We've been in a lot of close games. We haven't executed always at the end.”
What happened next changed the course of the game, a 62-59 win for the Gophers. First, Holtmann made two substitutions, bringing Carton and Walker into the game in place of Luther Muhammad and Kyle Young, despite the latter having scored Ohio State's last six points.
With multiple versatile offensive options on the court, the Buckeyes were looking for a specific action.
“We were trying to get a back door out of the corner for Duane, get an easy lay-up,” Walker said.
The Gophers were prepared.
“We thought they'd go with some dribble-drive type of stuff,” Pitino said. “They were kind of getting us on some switches.”
When Washington's drive was stopped, the Buckeyes began working the ball around for the best possible shot they could find. In this case, it would be an open three-pointer from the right wing from Kaleb Wesson — a 43.3% three-point shooter, the third-highest mark on the team.
“I don't want to get specific into what we were looking for, but I thought we got a great look,” Holtmann said. “It was actually a secondary look but I don't want to get specific about that.”
It just didn't fall.
“We were just trying to get our team's best shot, put the right players in the right situation to make a play,” Walker said. “We got a good open shot for Kaleb. He was wide open for the three. It just didn't fall.”
The plan was not to try to force the ball into Wesson, the team's leading scorer, for a few reasons. Going against Daniel Oturu in the post, Wesson finished the game 1 of 10 from the field and 1 of 7 from inside the three-point line with one of his shots having been blocked by Oturu.
“We had talked about that and hindsight's always 20-20,” Holtmann said of the possibility of forcing the ball to Wesson on the block. “I think he had a couple around the basket that I'm sure he would like to make that he normally would but he created a lot of opportunities for other guys because of the attention they were giving him. It was a tough floor game but overall I was fine with Kaleb's effort.”
When Wesson's shot missed with 16 seconds to play, Minnesota's Marcus Carr came up with the rebound and pushed the ball up the court. The Gophers had prepared for this possibility.
“We talked about, OK, if they do score, we'll call a timeout,” Pitino said. “If they don't, we put a play in. We just talked about, you've got to rebound the ball. They're so physical on the offensive glass.”
The sequence ended with a Carr three with 3.3 seconds left to set the final score.
“I'd have to look at it and see how well it was contested and challenged,” Holtmann said of his team's defense there. “I don't know if Carr, I don't know how he was challenged or contested. I thought it was a decent contest but obviously not good enough.”
The sequence came without arguably Ohio State's most effective player on the game. Young finished with 14 points, six of which came on three straight possessions in the final moments to briefly give the Buckeyes the lead.
He sat for the fateful possession because Minnesota's willingness to give him an open jumper would have clogged things up in the lane.
“We were just trying to create some space because we know how they were playing off the ball,” Holtmann said. “We were trying to create some space on the floor without him, but yeah, you can always second-guess yourself as a coach in those situations.”
Young was asked about having to watch those final seconds after having played 30:21.
“You always want to be in the game but you've got to trust coach to make the right decisions,” he said. “At the time they were playing heavy off of me so we might not have been able to get what we needed if it was going to be to go inside or get a skip pass or something like that. We thought our best opportunity was for me to come out at the time and then sub a guard in.”
The game wasn't decided in just the final minute. Ohio State had led by 11 points early in the second half only to allow an 11-1 run that put the game back in doubt. After attempting 15 first-half free throws, the Buckeyes got to the line only three times in the final 20 minutes.
It added up to another gut-punch of a loss in a season where they are mounting with frequency for the Buckeyes. Of Ohio State's seven losses, it has held opponents to below 70 points in five of them.
In each of those, the Buckeyes have failed to crack 60.
“I think in some ways we took a step forward in some areas,” Holtmann said. “Right now, we're just not good enough in enough areas to win in this league. I thought our guys competed, battled, played hard, were locked in. Had a few errors that happened that get you in this league, but we've got to find a way to answer the bell late in situations.”