In loaded Big Ten, Ohio State men's basketball still learning in clutch situations
Some lessons can be learned only in defeat, and the Ohio State men's basketball team has had two such opportunities recently.
After starting the season 5-0, Ohio State went to Purdue on Dec. 16, trailed for more than 33 minutes and took a 67-60 loss to open Big Ten play. The Buckeyes had been within striking distance for much of the game and were within six points with the ball during the final three minutes but couldn’t make the necessary plays to pull off the comeback.
Senior guard CJ Walker, who alongside senior forward Kyle Young had been removed from the starting lineup for the game as coach Chris Holtmann sent a message to his captains, made it clear to his teammates that the Buckeyes hadn’t played with enough poise down the stretch.
It was a similar story in Ohio State’s second Big Ten road game, a 71-70 loss at Northwestern on Saturday in which the Buckeyes surrendered a seven-point lead in the final six minutes.
And as No. 25 Ohio State prepared to host Nebraska on Wednesday evening at Value City Arena, it was clear that these Buckeyes still had lessons to learn.
Men's basketball: Ohio State's Musa Jallow to miss Nebraska game due to COVID-19 contact tracing
“We had a couple possessions there where a number of guys, the ball just stopped with them,” Holtmann said afterward. “We’ve got to finish games. I also thought we had some decent looks we didn’t make, and we passed up some shots we didn’t take and ended up taking a tougher shot.”
There were other issues. After Ohio State got into the bonus with 12:59 to play in the game, a team that is shooting 77.1% from the free throw line attempted only six free throws the rest of the way. Once the Buckeyes built their seven-point lead, Northwestern’s next two field goals came directly after Ohio State turned the ball over, allowing the Wildcats to cut the lead to three points with 3:59 to play.
It was part of a stretch in which the Buckeyes allowed baskets on five straight possessions while their offense stagnated.
When asked if the team’s lack of late-game execution had surprised him, Young said, “I wouldn’t say surprised. It’s something we’ve got to continue to work on. We have been good down the stretch but (against Northwestern) there were a few times we weren’t and it hurt us in the end.”
The collapse came in contrast to how the Buckeyes had finished the two games between their losses. Against UCLA on Dec. 19, Ohio State trailed by five with 11:26 to go and was tied with 6:02 to play but closed with a 14-7 run to earn a 77-70 win.
At home against Rutgers four days later, the Buckeyes were down 16 points with 15 minutes left and still down 12 points with 12 minutes to go before closing with a 37-13 run for an 80-68 win.
Against Northwestern, it just didn’t happen.
“We had them right where we wanted them and just didn’t execute down the stretch,” junior guard Duane Washington Jr. told The Dispatch. “That wasn’t good enough to bring home the ‘W’ in the Big Ten. We all know that, too.”
It’s a lesson that may keep repeating as the season progresses. Harvard graduate transfer Seth Towns, who was on the court for the final offensive possession against the Wildcats, quoted his former coach to explain why the Buckeyes remain confident they can learn from the experience.
“This is something Coach (Tommy) Amaker used to say to us: 'Everything’s not right when you win and not everything’s wrong when you lose,' ” he said. “There were some things we could’ve done in this game to win that we just didn’t capitalize on.”