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Notebook: Ohio State, CJ Walker learn on the fly in win against UMass Lowell

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State guard CJ Walker dribbles upcourt against UMass Lowell.

There’s a lot of learning on the fly going on at Ohio State this season.

Like every other team in college basketball, the No. 23 Buckeyes jumped into the start of the season without the benefit of any preseason tuneups. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing teams to walk tightropes in order to avoid positive tests that will sideline them for weeks at a time, the NCAA made the decision to limit teams to only games that count.

More:No. 23 Ohio State holds on against UMass Lowell behind Duane Washington Jr.'s 21 points

That means no secret scrimmages and no public exhibition games. And for Ohio State, that has meant the Buckeyes have now had two games to figure out who is supposed to inherit the role of go-to player with Kaleb Wesson no longer on the roster. Sunday afternoon at the Covelli Center, it also meant a team with experience but in large parts new to one another had to figure out how to handle an upset-minded, low-major opponent.

Although Ohio State led for 26:43, it wasn’t until the final 63 seconds that the Buckeyes could exhale against UMass Lowell. That was when Duane Washington Jr. hit a three-pointer to push the lead to 70-63 in what would become a 74-64 win.

It was the biggest lead since they held an eight-point lead on four first-half occasions but let it disappear. The final score marked the largest lead of the day for Ohio State.

So for the entirety of a second half that opened with the score tied at 33, Ohio State had to deal with mounting pressure to not suffer the upset.

“You’re trying to learn from every win and every loss from every circumstance,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “That’s one of our core tenants. As a coach I’m going to look back and say these are all the things we have to improve on. It’s a significant list, but it’s early in the season and hopefully we can make those strides.

“There’s no question that we’ve got a lot to improve on.”

Last year’s Ohio State team was worst in Big Ten play in three-point defense, allowing teams to shoot 34.8% from deep. For the season, the Buckeyes were 152nd nationally, allowing teams to shoot 32.7%.

At the half, the River Hawks were 6 for 15 (40.0%) from three. They would finish 11 for 30 (36.7%), numbers tempered when they missed their final five attempts. Until that point, they were 11 for 25 (44.0%) and had the score tied at 59.

The Buckeyes countered by missing their first 11 threes and finishing 4 for 18 (22.2%) from three. Three of those makes were from Washington on 11 attempts, making his teammates a combined 1 for 7.

“That was our first time having adversity and going through that,” fifth-year senior guard CJ Walker said. “We wanted to stick together and have that mindset that we had a lot of time. Once we took the lead, make a statement, finish the game strong, make the right plays. We weren’t making shots at the time. We just wanted to try to win the game and do what we had to do.”

The River Hawks were picked to finish seventh in the 10-member America East Conference. Ten of their 14 players are in their first or second seasons, and the program is only in its eighth season of Division I basketball.

They were playing on tired legs, having competed inside the Covelli Center only 23 hours prior against Illinois State. Yet there were signs this wouldn’t be a cakewalk for the Buckeyes – at least, if you used the transitive property.

In their season opener last Wednesday, the River Hawks beat San Francisco 76-68 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. Two days later, in its third game in as many days, San Francisco improved to 2-1 on the season with a 61-60 upset of No. 4 Virginia.

This was the second meeting in as many years between the teams. Last season, the Buckeyes won 76-56 in their second game of the season. Alonzo Gaffney scored 10 points in the win, the brightest spot of his lone season in the program that saw him finish with 30 total points. In that game, too, UMass Lowell was tired, having played at Long Island University not even 48 hours prior to tip.

But with five minutes to go Sunday, it was very much anyone’s game.

“I thought we were able to get just enough stops there late,” Holtmann said. “I thought our execution late against their zone got a little bit better and Duane was able to make that three to create some separation.”

Why Covelli?

The game was the first that the Buckeyes had ever played in the Covelli Center, located within sight of Value City Arena and home to seven of the school’s varsity programs. The men’s hockey team was playing a home series this weekend, and former home St. John Arena is set up as a workout facility during the COVID-19 pandemic and was unavailable.

Saturday, the Buckeyes went to the arena to watch UMass Lowell face Illinois State, the team Ohio State defeated in Wednesday’s season opener. Holtmann was asked if the venue change had anything to do with his team’s cold shooting.

“We came and watched them play yesterday and I was a little curious as to how we’d shoot the ball,” Holtmann said. “We’ve certainly played the first time in arenas and shot it better.”

To the line

Against UMass Lowell’s zone, the Buckeyes struggled to make shots but got to the free-throw line. Ohio State was 26 for 33 (78.8%) from the line, giving it an advantage over the visitors (11 for 14, 78.6%).

Walker finished with 13 points thanks to 9-of-10 shooting at the line. Justice Sueing, who had 19 points in his debut for Ohio State, finished with 15 points and was 6 for 9 from the line.

“It was great to see,” Holtmann said. “We had a lot of guys that got there. That has to be consistent for us. We’ve got good shooters. We’ll make shots. We’ve got good shooters. I do think we have to be intentional about attacking the paint. We tried to attack their zone by driving it and posting it, so that was good to see. It was good to see us get to the line, especially when a team is playing that much zone.”

Minutes

In the opener, Holtmann was able to empty his bench and play all 13 of his available players. Sunday, it was a different story.

Nine Buckeyes played against the River Hawks, only seven during the second half. Five players saw 14 minutes or more in the second half: Washington (19), Kyle Young (19), Sueing (18), Walker (17) and E.J. Liddell, who played 14 minutes while battling foul trouble.

The only two reserves to see second-half time were freshman Zed Key, who played seven minutes, and senior guard Jimmy Sotos, who played six.

“You’ve got to grow up really fast as a team,” Walker said. “That chemistry has to come really fast. You get an exhibition game, you get to see where guys fit in on the court. Each and every game you’ve got to get better and learn. Film is going to be big thing for us because we don’t have those exhibition games early. We’ve got to learn really fast.”

One player was a late scratch. Fourth-year junior guard/forward Musa Jallow, who missed last season after undergoing two surgeries on his right ankle, was active in warm-ups but then was wearing a walking boot on his right leg.

“I was close to looking at potentially subbing him but I was told he was not available,” Holtmann said. “It was lower leg, not ankle. Something that happened in warm-ups. That’s all I honestly know right now.”

Quotable

“What you’re looking at is different styles of play, which is what we experienced here today. You welcome those, although you know there could potentially be some rocky moments. I don’t want to discount their effort or our culpability. We’ve got to do things better. To be able to go against a three-quarter-court press and a zone, that we had seen but not to this degree, I think is good for us. It’ll help us get better. All in all, there’s a lot of things we’ll take from this but a couple we discussed that I’ll leave between us.” – Holtmann

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy