OSU hoops: Justin Ahrens' big shot, Justice Sueing's point and Meechie Johnson's debut
Neither the moment nor the play called specifically for Justin Ahrens to hit the game-changing shot.
After leading by as many as 13 points during the second half, No. 21 Ohio State was again being pushed to the wire by Northwestern. An 8-0 run had pulled the Wildcats within a point at 67-66 with four minutes to play, and the few parents of Wildcats players situated inside Value City Arena were making noise as a feeling of déjà vu creeped over the Buckeyes.
Eighteen days earlier, Ohio State had led by seven points with seven minutes to play at Northwestern only to fall in a one-point loss. Undermanned and reeling a bit, the Buckeyes called timeout with 4:04 remaining this time and drew up a play that called for converted point guard Justice Sueing, playing his first-ever game at the position, to drive the basket and either score or draw a foul.
The Wildcats sussed it out. But the Buckeyes had another option, and it was why they had Ahrens ready ball-side for a pass. Sueing found him, Ahrens buried it with 3:55 to play and Northwestern would not threaten again.
“That was the biggest shot of his career,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said.
Now in his third season with the program, Ahrens has sporadically found his way into the starting lineup. Wednesday, his ascension had as much to do with his shooting capabilities as the injuries that have plagued the Ohio State backcourt. With CJ Walker already sidelined with torn ligaments in his right hand, the Buckeyes also lost backup Jimmy Sotos to a right shoulder injury suffered in Saturday’s road win against No. 15 Rutgers, Ohio State’s first game without Walker.
After weighing a few options, Holtmann opted to shift Sueing from forward to point guard, opening a spot for Ahrens in the starting lineup. It was his second start of the season and sixth of his career, and he would finish with 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting from three-point range. He’s now got 67 career three-pointers, but this one was special.
“It was a blast action play that we ran for justice to get to his left hand and go downhill, maybe draw a foul or get a layup, but they read it,” Ahrens said. “They knew he was going to go to his left hand so he took a few dribbles, made a pivot and got me the ball. My defender’s hand was down, so I put it up.
“I didn’t know if it was going in or not, but I was confident.”
It was the start of what would be a 12-0 run that removed all doubt from the final outcome, and Ahrens got plenty of help from there. After forcing a pair of empty Northwestern possessions, Sueing scored on a drive to the basket while being fouled, senior Kyle Young converted a traditional three-point play and Duane Washington Jr. added a jumper and a pair of free throws.
It was a far cry from how the Buckeyes closed out the first game of the season against the Wildcats.
“This is the most proud I’ve been of our team the entire year,” Holtmann said. “They made plays. Give them credit. I just thought our guys responded with great poise down the stretch. It’s why I’m so proud of them.”
Without Sotos or Walker, Ahrens earned the nod largely because of his ability to shoot and stretch opposing defenses. On defense, Ahrens was picked on early by Northwestern’s Chase Audige, who finished with a career-high 25 points after scoring Northwestern’s first 11 points and 15 of its first 17.
“The biggest thing was I thought we need shooting on the floor,” Holtmann said. “You’re going back and forth with balancing your lineups offensively and defensively. He got exposed some defensively but we’ve just got to keep working. His ability to play off of penetration and be a weapon is tremendous. I thought he had a great night, man. I thought he had a great night.”
Jimmy Sotos sidelined
As the Buckeyes got loose, a combined 222 games of Division I experience stood to the side and watched. Walker, with 110 career games, had a brace on his right hand while Sotos, who has played 112 games, was simply dressed in the same sweats as his injured teammate.
Ohio State men's basketball:Jimmy Sotos will miss the Northwestern game with a shoulder injury
There is no definitive timetable for when either player will return. Sotos’ situation was announced only a few hours before the game, and it’s unclear if he will be able to play when the Buckeyes go to No. 14 Illinois on Saturday.
“We know more day-by-day on Jimmy,” Holtmann said after the win. “I couldn’t tell you more information right now than the fact that he was out on a shoulder injury tonight. We don’t know how long he’s going to be out at this point and I couldn’t give you specifics on that. It’ll be a day-by-day and game-by-game decision. He’s obviously anxious to get back but we’re going to need to make sure he’s cleared medically first and he’s not cleared medically.”
Meechie Johnson gets going
The game marked the home debut for freshman Meechie Johnson Jr., who continues to rapidly assimilate into college life. The early-enrollee who graduated high school this fall and joined the Buckeyes in mid-December to help address their lack of depth at the point started practicing last week and made his official debut by playing four minutes in the win at Rutgers.
Against the Wildcats, with family members in attendance, Johnson announced his presence with a flourish. After subbing in with 8:15 to play, Johnson got off his first career field-goal attempt when he launched a three-pointer from the right wing with 6:06 to play that gave the Buckeyes a 30-23 lead.
Then, in the final minute of the half, the Buckeyes ran what looked to be a designed play – for Johnson. It resulted in him hitting a three from the right corner, helping Ohio State take a 42-33 lead into the half.
“I was telling Duane after he hit his second three I was like, ‘He’s nice. He’s going to be real nice,' " Ahrens said. "You don’t see that a lot with a freshman, the confidence he’s been playing with. Especially in practice, he’s been getting his teammates involved really well as a point guard. You’ve seen him out there hitting those two big shots tonight. He’s not scared to let it fly. He’s living up to the moment and I’m excited for him.”
Then, once he hit that second three, Johnson had a few things to say to the Wildcats as they called timeout with 23 seconds left.
Ohio State hoops:Meechie Johnson Jr. to join Ohio State early
“I love his competitive spirit,” Holtmann said. “If he gets a technical, I don’t love that, and I made that point to him, but I love his competitive spirit. I love his aggressiveness. Meechie Johnson has a fearlessness to him and I love that about him.”
It’s a big part of the reason Johnson has been able to parachute in, pass all the necessary testing protocols and assume a role on a team fighting in the midst of a deep Big Ten.
“You’re throwing him in mid-year,” Holtmann said. “Now you’re saying, hey, hop in, play 15, 10 minutes in the best league in the country. And oh by the way, you’re going to play one of the most important positions on the floor. Learn our defensive system. Learn our offensive system. And by the way, don’t overthink. Just play. That’s a lot to ask of a young man.”
It was Sueing who nabbed Johnson as the teams headed to their huddles and made sure nothing more was said.
“He’s full of confidence,” he said. “We love that about him. Being a point guard on the floor, you have to be able to carry a team and lead them the right way. He’s a young buck but he’s really taking in all the lessons and advice and criticism we’ve been giving him. He got his little two threes off tonight, got his confidence going and we’re going to continue to build that for him.”
Career night for Duane Washington
The junior guard continued what has been a run of consistent play with a career-high 23 points on 7-for-17 shooting. He also dished out a career-high six assists with just one turnover.
“I feel like he’s getting better each and every game,” Ahrens said. “Watching a lot of film. He’s done a really good job of seeing the floor. He had six or seven assists with one turnover. Credit to him for handling the ball the way he has been and reading certain situations and taking good shots, which he has been doing these past couple games.”
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In his last four games, Washington has made 25 of 54 (46.3%) of his shots and 15 for 33 (45.5%) of his threes.
“Duane was tremendous,” Holtmann said. “What we’ve seen in this last string of games is a consistent, efficient Duane Washington and when you get (that) he is what I’ve always believed and that is a very good player. Now, when he’s inefficient, to his credit he has really committed himself to improving in that area. His decision-making in the last four minutes probably won the game for us.”
He also missed two free throws after entering the game having hit 33 of 36 (91.7%) for the season. He would come back out and, with the help of a manager, get up a few extra free throws while still in his game jersey before calling it a night.
Ohio State-Northwestern: By the numbers
* In the two games this season, Northwestern outscored Ohio State 36-8 in points off of turnovers.
* Ohio State has now won 22 straight games against Northwestern while ranked. The last such loss was when No. 16 Ohio State lost 70-69 at Northwestern on February 18, 1989.
* The last time the Wildcats recorded consecutive wins against the Buckeyes came during a three-game winning streak from February 26, 1966-February 25, 1967. Holtmann was not born yet.
* Northwestern has never beaten a ranked Ohio State team in Columbus. The Buckeyes are 23-0 all-time.
* Since 1977, the Buckeyes are now 36-1 at home against the Wildcats. Their lone loss was a 74-72 defeat on January 22, 2017 – Thad Matta’s last season.
“Best thing for me tonight, 1A the win and 1B having the families here. That was the best thing. As a coach, you just love the families having a chance to see their players. It makes me feel really good. I really appreciate everything that’s been done to get our families here.” – Holtmann, on having families at the game for the first time this season