'Till death do them part, Chris Holtmann and Duane Washington's bond key for Ohio State

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. drives to the basket between Rutgers guards Jacob Young, left, and Caleb McConnell during Saturday's game.

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – The duality of Duane Washington Jr. was on full display Saturday afternoon at the Rutgers Athletic Center.

Just before halftime, he stamped a standout half with a step-back, fadeaway three-pointer to give Ohio State a 12-point lead. Then, as the Buckeyes fought to hold a lead that reached 22 points during the second half, Washington had four of their six turnovers in the final 7:18 as No. 15 Rutgers pulled within eight points.

The final stat line for Washington: a team-high 17 points on 6-of-14 shooting with one assist, one rebound and four turnovers in a team-high 34 minutes. It produced a win and an all-time quote from his coach.

“Oh, I love him,” Chris Holtmann said. “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.”

The comment, delivered in deadpan style, is another glimpse into the relationship between coach and star player who occasionally falls a little too in love with his own shot. Last season, Washington was on the receiving end of a few quick hooks for misguided plays or, worse, the look from Holtmann that he said felt like he was “staring through your whole soul.”

Clearly, it’s a relationship that has a few levels to it.

“Keeping him on his toes is something I for sure will always do,” Washington told The Dispatch after the win. “He’s always on me to be a better player, better person. I really appreciate that from him. He’s going to keep challenging me and I’m going to keep challenging him to get better.”

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Without Wesson, Washington entered the season on a short list of candidates to lead the Buckeyes in scoring. He’s at a team-best 15.1 per game so far, and he’s taken 50 more shots than anyone else on the roster (although E.J. Liddell missed two games with mononucleosis). Now, in a backcourt ravaged by injuries, the junior is one of the last men standing for the Buckeyes, who played the Scarlet Knights without CJ Walker (torn ligaments in his right hand) and lost replacement Jimmy Sotos to a right shoulder injury.

The status of both players going forward is unknown, which means the demands on Washington figure to only grow. That includes during timeouts, as he demonstrated Saturday afternoon while viewers at home were watching a commercial break after he pushed the lead to 20 points with a three-pointer four minutes into the second half.

Rutgers called timeout to stem the Ohio State run, and as he headed to the bench Washington had a quick chat with Holtmann before animatedly addressing his teammates.

“(Holtmann) pulled me to the side and told me, ‘Make sure you get your guys locked in. Be mature about this and let’s pull this out,’ ” Washington said. “I repeated the message that coach said to me to the guys.”

There’s still plenty to work on. Holtmann mentioned the cross-court passes late in the game that were easily nabbed by Rutgers defenders, leading to easy opportunities at the other end. A 97.1% free-throw shooter, Washington only attempted two in the game.

“He brings joy to playing, which we love about him,” Holtmann said. “He brings a great spirit to playing the game and competing. I’ve got a lot of confidence in who he can be, but no question, he’s taken years off my life.”

He’s also given this year’s team its best chance of winning more often than not. And as the Buckeyes try to wade their way through a loaded Big Ten, the relationship between Washington and Holtmann will be critical to whatever success they enjoy.

They reminded each other of that right after the final seconds ticked off. Standing at midcourt, the two embraced each other for a hug and a quick talk.

“I’ll be telling him he's acting crazy,” Washington said. “He's yelling and screaming and stuff and I’ll be laughing at him and be like, ‘Coach. I got you.’ He told me (at the end), ‘I know you got me, Duane.’ That’s what he pulled me over to say. I told him, ‘I love you coach,’ and he gave me a hug and then we ran it in there.”