Notebook: Buckeyes, Justin Ahrens blow past Nebraska in 'unique' Big Ten win
It took Chris Holtmann four words of his postgame press conference to use the word “unique.”
The descriptor was as apt as it was obvious Wednesday night at Value City Arena. Four days after his Ohio State men’s basketball team let a late lead slip in a 71-70 road loss to Northwestern, the No. 25 Buckeyes got a cure for nearly everything that could ail them in the form of Nebraska. Although the Cornhuskers had delivered scares to Big Ten foes Michigan and Wisconsin, the Cornhuskers put up as much resistance as a wet tissue in what would become a 90-54 win.
At one point, the Buckeyes led by 41 points. That it was only a 36-point win was due to a lineup with both Ohio State walk-ons on the court allowing the visitors to score five points in the final 85 seconds. Either way, it went down as the biggest Big Ten win for Ohio State since a 104-62 road win against Northwestern on January 10, 1991.
Holtmann was 19 years old.
“Tonight was a unique Big Ten game,” Holtmann said. “You don’t have as many that are like that. As I’ve said, I’ve got a lot of respect for Nebraska. I think our guys were aware of that, and I think overall it was a really solid performance from our guys. I thought we were able to defend them with great purpose, had great technique, certainly made some shots but I thought our ball movement was exceptional.”
The 36-point margin just edged out a 32-point win against Penn State on December 7, 2019, as the biggest Big Ten win during Holtmann’s four years with the Buckeyes. The Cornhuskers tied the game at 13 before Ohio State blew it open.
The Big Ten is rated as the best conference in the nation this year by seemingly every available metric. This week, nine teams from the conference are in the Associated Press top 25 poll, and 10 teams are among the top 40 nationally according to KenPom.com.
The outlier is Nebraska, which is the only conference team outside the top 55 in the country. The Cornhuskers are 122nd under second-year coach Fred Hoiberg.
“You don’t have many Big Ten games where there’s this margin,” Holtmann said. “You don’t ever expect that, but I think they missed some shots they normally make and we made some shots, but I thought our ball movement had a lot to do with that. I thought we really moved the ball. If we were to play them tomorrow the game very easily would look much different. We just probably caught them on a night and we had something to do with that. We played really well.”
The numbers line up with the score. Ohio State shot 49.2% from the floor, hit a season-high 12 three-pointers and held the visitors to 28.3% shooting. Five Ohio State players scored in double figures, led by Justin Ahrens’ 18 points.
“The biggest thing was our coaches really wanted us to come out and set that first punch,” junior forward Justice Sueing, who had 12 points and six rebounds. “We made that an emphasis for all of us, especially after a loss. We wanted to hit that first punch to get going. As we practiced this last week, paying attention to details, our defensive things, we wanted to come out and get it done. When things go well we start to feel better about ourselves and it showed in the game today.”
Holtmann pointed out that teams can respond from tough losses in one of two ways. Since the Buckeyes resumed practice following the loss to the Wildcats, the coach said his players had an edge to them.
“The biggest point of pride for us tonight was everybody was ready to go,” Ahrens said. “As soon as they got on the court, they were ready to go. We knew Nebraska’s a team that likes to push the ball in transition so if we turn the ball over they’re going to try to capitalize on that. I feel like we did a pretty good job getting back in transition but I still feel like we could’ve been better on a couple possessions.
“They’re a really big team that runs the floor hard so it takes a lot of awareness to pick up the ball and match up with the shooters. Overall I felt like we did pretty good but there were a couple possessions where we could’ve matched up better in transition.”
Ohio State finished with an 11-0 advantage in fast-break points. The Buckeyes turned 15 Nebraska turnovers into 21 points while Ohio State’s 10 turnovers resulted in only two points for the Cornhuskers.
“It was good to see our guys do some things well in terms of trusting each other, moving the ball better,” Holtmann said. “We’ll see if that’s what we consistently are. That’s what we need to consistently be.”
As Nebraska fought to keep things close early, the Buckeyes continued their recent run of cold three-point shooting. Ohio State missed its first five three-point attempts against the Cornhuskers: two from Duane Washington Jr., two from Sueing and one from Jimmy Sotos.
Then forward E.J. Liddell stepped into his second three-point make of the season, and the floodgates were opened. Ahrens followed Liddell with one of his own, Seth Towns made it three in a row and the Buckeyes had a 26-13 lead with 7:40 to play in the half.
Nebraska never got any closer than that as the Buckeyes went on to hit 12 of 32 (37.5%) of their threes. It’s the most threes Ohio State has made in a game this season and follows a two-game stretch where the Buckeyes made only four threes in each game.
“For us, it’s about taking good ones and being aggressive,” Holtmann said. “We need the right guys taking them. We’ve got good shooters with Justin and Seth (Towns) and Jimmy and Duane. The right guys need to continue to shoot them, and guys need to take good ones. For us, that’s gotta continue to be the case. I didn’t really have issue with any of our early threes. We were 0 for 5, but all five of them were good threes. Once we continued taking good ones I knew we’d knock some of them down.”
Percentage-wise, it’s Ohio State’s best three-point-shooting game since it went 11 for 23 (47.8%) in a 90-85 win at Notre Dame on December 8. In their last two games, the Buckeyes were a combined 8 for 39 (20.5%) from deep.
Ahrens had a lot to do with that. He finished with a season-high 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting from three-point range. In Ohio State’s three prior Big Ten games, Ahrens had three points total and had made 13 threes all season.
He started the game 1 for 3 from three before hitting five straight during an eight-minute second-half stretch with the outcome already decided.
“I felt really good out there,” he said. “Kind of a slower first half but I thought we played really well. The whole group was locked in defensively. In the second half my teammates did a great job finding me. We were told that Nebraska gaps up, so I figured that’d play to my advantage. It felt good to see it go through like that, and once I see one or two go through, I’m gonna keep shooting until I miss.”
For the season, Ahrens is 19 for 35 (53.4%) from three. The rest of his teammates are a combined 52 for 188 (27.7%).
His shooting ability puts him in line for playing time, but it’s his defense that will help him earn it.
“I felt like I was most proud of myself because I felt like I was locked in defensively,” he said. “I was active in my gap. I was guarding a couple of their best shooters so I had to have really good awareness off the ball. I felt like I was really locked into the game plan and stuck with it. I was talking a lot on defense. It felt good to get out there and compete with the guys.”
It was in the final days of the Thad Matta era that Nebraska came to Value City Arena and pulled off a stunning comeback. Down by five points with 32 seconds remaining, the Cornhuskers scored six points in the final 25 seconds to pull off a 58-57 shocker on February 18, 2017.
Since then, the Buckeyes have won five straight games against the Cornhuskers and just one of them has been by single digits. The last four margins of victory for Ohio State against Nebraska: 5, 10, 12 and 21.
Wednesday’s 36-point win was just barely Ohio State’s biggest win against Nebraska. The Buckeyes beat the Cornhuskers by 34 points, 79-45, on January 21, 2012.
They also have won by 31 points on two occasions: 84-53, on January 4, 2014, and 71-40 on January 3, 2012.
In all, the Buckeyes have won 18 of the last 20 games between the two schools. This is their only meeting this season.
“It was weird. I shot it and I thought it was in. I was kind of laughing to myself, because I knew, dang, that was my first two-point attempt of the season.” – Ahrens, on his first two-point attempt of the season, which was a missed runner from the right baseline
“The main thing I want to say for practice especially was our attention to detail. We have to always be ready to come and play because anyone any day can come in and defeat you. Our attention to detail was big. We really locked in on personnel.” – Sueing
“I thought our guys had good focus, as you’d expect a team coming off a tough loss. They can go in one of two directions. We had an edge in practice these last couple of days. We were all disappointed. I thought we did some good things at Northwestern, just didn’t finish it with the across-the-board stuff to win a game like that, but I thought our guys had good purpose, good preparation, respected this Nebraska team. This was a team that was up in the second half at Wisconsin and a close game versus Michigan.” – Holtmann