Ohio State hoops notes: Jimmy Sotos injury overshadows win at Rutgers
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Early on, his three-point shooting helped propel Ohio State to a lead against No. 15 Rutgers. Then, late, Jimmy Sotos was hoping to put the final touches on a big day for both himself and the Buckeyes when Paul Mulcahy knocked the ball loose from the Ohio State guard deep in the backcourt.
Both players converged on the ball, and in the process Mulcahy and Sotos collided. The Rutgers guard nabbed the ball and scored at the other end on an uncontested dunk as Sotos writhed in pain near midcourt, clutching his right shoulder. Play was stopped with 3:50 to play for the final media timeout of what would be a 79-68 Ohio State win, and Sotos would have to be helped into the locker room.
He would not return, and coach Chris Holtmann did not give specifics on his status immediately after the game other than to acknowledge that he was in a lot of pain.
“He is,” Holtmann said. “I don’t want to get specific on it right now, but I think as much as anything he’s really disappointed because of what he felt like, how he was playing. He wanted to continue that. We’ll get all the tests, evaluate it and we’ll know more in a few days.”
As he laid on the court at the Rutgers Athletic Center and the Ohio State training staff converged on him, Sotos seemed to mouth that his shoulder had popped out. After the game, near the Ohio State locker room, Sotos and Holtmann had a lengthy conversation at close proximity.
Holtmann, with his right arm around the former Bucknell guard, kept patting Sotos on his back while Sotos kept his head covered with a white towel.
The Buckeyes entered the game already down their primary ball-handler in senior guard CJ Walker, who missed his first of potentially multiple games with torn ligaments in his right, non-shooting hand. In his absence, Sotos earned the start. He opened the scoring with a three-pointer, his first in Big Ten play, and would add another a few moments later as the Buckeyes opened up a 16-11 lead.
He had entered the game averaging 1.3 points per game for the season and had scored five total points in conference games. He finished with the six points, a season-high four assists and three rebounds in 28 minutes of playing time.
It was his second start of the year and only the second time he had been on the court alongside the other four mainstays in Ohio State’s starting lineup: Duane Washington Jr., Justice Sueing, E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young.
“I thought he played really well,” Holtmann said. “I thought he defended well. I thought he created offense with his ability to get in the lane. I thought his decision-making was good. I thought Justice’s decision-making was good as well, but I thought Jimmy settled us in a lot of ways and was able to keep their guards in front.
“He dove for the ball, made an effort play there and banged his shoulder pretty good. I was pretty pleased with the rhythm that group played with on both ends.”
Now the Buckeyes will await further testing. Sotos is the third player at the position to go down with an injury after Utah State graduate transfer Abel Porter’s career came to an end during the fall after the Ohio State medical staff discovered a heart condition that would prevent him from playing.
Ohio State will host Northwestern on Wednesday.
“The great thing about our team is we’re really deep,” Sueing said. “Everyone on our team has something to give. We saw that tonight, Jimmy giving us that good start he gave us. We really stuck to our game plan today and it showed. It’s a good win for us.”
Sueing steps in
Without Walker, a 97.7% free-throw shooter this season and their best ball-handler, the Buckeyes struggled to close out what had been a 22-point lead with 9:37 to play. That was furthered by the loss of Sotos, and it led to Sueing being the guy with the ball in key situations late.
Holtmann mentioned him Thursday as a candidate to handle some point guard duties at Rutgers. He finished with 12 points aided by 6-of-9 shooting from the free-throw line.
All six of his makes came in the final 6:03.
“Losing CJ, he was our leader and ball handler, someone who really leads our team,” Sueing said. “Going into this game we knew we had to pick up on the areas. As far as me handling the ball, coach trusts me enough to be a ball handler, to make those decisions and other guys have to step up, too. Today I think we did a good job of adjusting.”
In the original plan, Meechie Johnson would have been watching Saturday’s game from his home in Garfield Heights and preparing for a high school game. Instead, the freshman guard who graduated early, reclassified to the 2020 class and joined Ohio State in mid-December made his collegiate debut when he replaced Sotos with 11:34 to play in the first half.
In all, Johnson would total four minutes of playing time and not record a statistic, but it was the culmination of a lot of work for a player who missed his entire junior high school season with a knee injury.
“I was really proud of Meechie,” Holtmann said. “I can’t overstate how hard that is for him to get to campus when he got to campus, go through all of the important stuff with the battery of tests, medical tests, just begin live practice two days ago and then play a top 15 team on the road. I give him a ton of credit. It’s going to be a slow build with him. I give him a ton of credit. Excited about his continuing to grow.”
Throughout the game, Johnson’s teammates spoke to him and offered advice. That also happened before the game.
“I just mentioned to him it’s completely normal to feel any type of nerves,” Young said. “For him to get his first minutes out of the way was huge. He’ll come along.”
Rutgers center Myles Johnson fouled out when the Buckeyes won the first game between the teams this season 17 days ago. Afterward, he posted a pair of messages to Twitter wondering if the referees had been throwing the game and promising a different type of game when Ohio State came to the RAC.
He finished with eight points, eight rebounds and three fouls in 25 minutes.
“We obviously hard about it,” Sueing said of Johnson’s comments. “The internet, that’s how it works. We knew we had a job to do. We knew they were going to put up a good game and we responded really well regardless of what was said. We stuck with our game plan and did what we had to do to carry out this win.”
He wasn’t the only Rutgers player the Buckeyes kept in check. Ron Harper Jr., who had 20 points in the prior meeting, finished with a season-low 11 points. Geo Baker, too, finished with four points and missed all five of his three-point attempts.
“I thought defensively we were good,” Holtmann said. “We were pretty locked in. They’ve got a lot of guys who can get to the rim.”
Ohio State closed the first half with a flurry, turning a 26-20 deficit into a 42-30 lead. Dating back to a 16-point lead during the second half in the last game, Ohio State entered the half having outscored Rutgers 90-50 during their last 34:38 playing against each other.
It stood to reason that the Scarlet Knights, playing at home, would come out with greater intensity to open the second half and claw back into the game. Instead, E.J. Liddell hit a turnaround jumper on the opening possession, Young hit a three-pointer and a right-handed hook shot and Washington added a three-pointer to force Rutgers to call timeout with the Buckeyes on a 10-2 run to open the half.
That gave Ohio State a 20-point lead with 15:56, and when Rutgers called timeout to stem the tide the Buckeyes bench area erupted. Going back to the 26-20 deficit, it pushed the Ohio State run to 32-6 across the two halves.
“It was the first four minutes that we knew was going to dictate the game,” Young said. “Setting the rules is one of our main principles. We got a little shaky towards the end but the important thing is we got a road win and we stuck together.”
Holtmann didn’t want to give specifics, but there is some phrase the Buckeyes use to describe those situations.
“As much as we can, those moments are really critical,” he said. “You’re trying to set a tone on both ends. We have a phrase we talk about in our locker room that speaks to that we’ve got to be deliberate and intentional about doing that. We were able to do that in how we played. We haven’t done that in certainly one of our losses. You can’t necessarily win the game, but you can certainly set yourselves on your heels if you don’t start well. Our guys did that.”
Despite all that, Rutgers was able to create some doubt and climb within shouting distance in the final moments by pressuring the Buckeyes and forcing them into multiple turnovers.
The Buckeyes had three turnovers on as many possessions during the first half, keying a 10-0 Rutgers run during which Ohio State attempted just one shot from the floor. They would finish with 11 turnovers for the game, and six of them came in the final 7:03.
Washington had four, Sotos had one and Musa Jallow had another. It was the clearest example of where the Buckeyes missed Walker, who watched the game from the bench with his hand heavily taped.
“For sure we missed him,” Holtmann said. “You miss another ball handler. I’ve never been in a situation where three of the guys who were going to play point guard this year right now aren’t with us or weren’t playing at that moment. For us, we just didn’t handle it very well but our guys responded.”
That allowed Rutgers to pull within eight points with 59 seconds to play.
“We were able to get enough stops,” Holtmann said. “Our defense carried us. Clearly, we’ve got to do a better job as coached putting them in better spots. They have to be stronger with the ball. They have to make better decisions. Duane has to make better decisions there late.”
“Oh, I love him. I love coaching him, but he’s going to send me to an early death. I love coaching him, but he will send me to an early death.” – Holtmann, on Washington, who led the team with 17 points and also four turnovers
“I can’t speak for E.J. directly, but coming off that game, we didn’t necessarily play the way we wanted to play. We didn’t play tough enough, physical enough. EJ’s going to come out and play with the same confidence and try to be the same great player he is. We have the utmost confidence in what he can do for us. It’s something with toughness and physicality we have to bring every game.” – Young, on the Buckeyes bringing more physicality than they did against Minnesota the last time out.