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Ohio State, Rutgers unsure what to expect in rematch of 'unique' first meeting

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) is guarded by Rutgers Scarlet Knights forward Mamadou Doucoure (11) during the second half of Wednesday's NCAA Division I basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Oh. on December 23, 2020. Ohio State won the game 80-68.

Ohio State’s players like to talk about throwing the first metaphorical punch, sending a tone by winning the opening minutes of a game, half or four-minute period.

The last time the Buckeyes played Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights delivered plenty of their own. Then Ohio State counter-punched, and the final outcome left everyone a little bit dizzy. Rutgers led by 16 points with 15:38 to play and still held a double-digit lead with 12 minutes left before the Buckeyes closed with a flourish and handed the No. 11 team in the nation a 12-point defeat. That amounts to a 28-point swing in the final 15:38 in a game that even featured the affable Rutgers coach, Steve Pikiell, receive a technical foul.

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Saturday, the teams conclude their season series at the Rutgers Athletic Center. Only 17 days will have passed between the games, but it’s hard to tell exactly what – if anything – can be taken from a game with such extremes.

“It was one of the more unique games I’ve been a part of because you don’t come back from 16 much against the 11th-ranked team in the country,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “Give them credit: they made some shots, some of which were really tough in the first half. It was a unique game because it turned really pretty quickly in the last 15 minutes of the game. I don’t know if you can take much from that, because I would expect it to be a different game on Saturday.”

It left a mark on at least one of Rutgers players. Starting center Myles Johnson, who fouled out in 15 minutes of playing time, posted two messages to Twitter immediately afterward implying that the referees were being paid to call the game for Ohio State and that he wouldn’t wait for the rematch.

Pikiell said he addressed the comments with the junior.

“We talked at length. I think (it was a case of) frustrated, young student-athlete. We moved on. It’s not indicative of who he is. He had a bad moment, press send. They’re young and they’re emotional.

“He’s a great kid. He does all the right things, but it’s an emotional game and when you press that button you’d better not be emotional.”

Ohio State’s frontcourt feasted against the Scarlet Knights. Sophomore E.J. Liddell had 21 points and senior Kyle Young had 17, both career-high totals, and the Buckeyes outrebounded Rutgers 45-25. Thursday, Pikiell called Ohio State the most physical team Rutgers had faced this season and compared the Buckeyes to Michigan State.

“They’re probably the most physical team in the league in how they screen and play their defense,” he said. “We have to do a really good job of matching that. We’re getting ready to play one of the best programs in the conference and they’ve already beaten us.”

The Buckeyes will be without senior guard CJ Walker, who played 35 minutes in that game, as he misses his first game with torn ligaments in his right thumb. It was the second game of the season for Seth Towns, who continues to make his way back to his former self after missing two years due to knee injuries. Rutgers, too, lost senior guard Jacob Young to a shoulder injury suffered during the game, although he did not miss any further games.

As Pikiell put it, both teams already look different barely two weeks later.

“We had a lot of obstacles in that game and the last four minutes didn’t play out the way we needed them to,” he said. “It’s a play, it’s a defensive stop and we didn’t get them when we needed to and they did. You learn from it, but they put new stuff in. They’re playing some guys new minutes. They changed some of their sets. You can take a lot from that first tape but they’re evolving too.”

What that means for Saturday is anybody’s guess.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy