Hot shooting from Justin Ahrens helps Ohio State to historic blowout win against Nebraska
The reaction from the Ohio State men's basketball bench area begins before Justin Ahrens even starts to flick his left wrist.
Expectant cheers ring out from his fellow Buckeyes whenever the junior forward squares up and prepares to launch another three-point shot. In arenas devoid of fans this season, they’re especially noticeable.
And as Ahrens lets go, there’s no doubt that his teammates fully believe the shot is going in. Such is his reputation, one that could have a growing impact on this 2020-21 season.
In Ohio State’s most dominant Big Ten win in nearly 30 years, Ahrens buried five straight second-half three-pointers to finish with a team-high 18 points in a 90-54 win Wednesday in Value City Arena against a Nebraska team staring at a second-straight plummet to the Big Ten basement.
On a team that entered the night last in three-point shooting at 22.2% in Big Ten play, Ahrens’ 6-for-9 effort was a reminder that the Buckeyes have an elite long-range shooter on their roster. But what most pleased Ahrens wasn’t that he tied his career high for three-point makes, but the fact that his defense allowed him to stay on the floor and have those opportunities.
“I was most proud of myself because I felt like I was locked in defensively,” he said. “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.”
One game before, against Northwestern, Ahrens was on the court for only 71 seconds of a 71-70 loss. Defensively, he lost track of Wildcats guard Miller Kopp, who scored on an easy layup, and was quickly taken off the floor.
The sequence constituted his only playing time of the game, one in which Seth Towns went 3 for 4 from three-point range but the rest of the Buckeyes went a combined 1 for 16.
Growth on the defensive end has not been a linear process for the junior, something Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann pointed to following a 90-85 win at Notre Dame on Dec. 8, when Ahrens shot 4 of 6 on three-point tries.
“He’s really committed himself to improving his details defensively, and his commitment on that end has gotten better and better,” Holtmann said then. “He’s got to continue to do that for us, but we need his ability to stretch the defense and just play. There is a tradeoff at times, (defense for offense), but he’s got to mitigate some of that tradeoff.”
Doing so would allow a player shooting a team-best 54.3% (19 for 35) from three get on the court more for a team that needs consistent perimeter shooting. Aside from Ahrens, no player with more than 10 three-point attempts is shooting better than 34.2% so far this season.
Ahrens was on the court for 19 minutes, 54 seconds against the Cornhuskers, and his slew of makes didn’t change the outcome of the game, only the final margin. As Ahrens connected on his five straight threes, each eliciting louder cheers from the bench area, he helped expand a 63-29 lead to 88-49.
The 36-point victory was Ohio State’s largest in Big Ten play since a 104-62 road win against Northwestern on Jan. 10, 1991.
It also bumped Ahrens up to a 43.3% career three-point shooting mark (61 for 141).
“Once I see one or two go through, I’m gonna keep shooting until I miss,” Ahrens said. “Once one or two get through, you get a feeling and I feel like I’ve just got to shoot it if I touch it and I’m open.”