'Don't flinch': Justin Ahrens buries key threes for Ohio State in Illinois win

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Justin Ahrens, right, celebrates after Ohio State teammate Seth Towns drew a foul against Illinois on Saturday.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Something had to bear the brunt of the frustration, and the water bottle happened to be the easy target.

No. 21 Ohio State had been controlling No. 14 Illinois throughout the first half, building a lead as high as 18 points, but Justin Ahrens hadn’t had much to do with it. Making his second consecutive start, Ahrens had picked up his third foul with 34.5 seconds left and headed to the bench as Adam Miller hit all three free throws. When the Buckeyes broke the huddle after calling timeout with 29 seconds left to set up a final possession, Ahrens headed to the last row of seats in the bench area and slammed his water bottle to the floor.

Shooters need to have short memories, not just for missed shots but also for defensive struggles. That was on display during the second half as Ahrens shook off those feelings and hit three three-pointers to keep the Fighting Illini at bay in an 87-81 win Saturday afternoon.

“Going into halftime I wasn’t saying much,” Ahrens told The Dispatch after the game. “I was thinking, it’s in the past, I’ve got to move on and get back to doing what I do. I felt like I came back in the second half, I was locked in defensively, took open shots, took good ones and knocked them down ultimately.”

Ohio State forward Justin Ahrens (10) defends against Ayo Dosunmu of Illinois in the second half of the Buckeyes' 87-81 win on Saturday. Ahrens scored 11 points in the win.

None were bigger than his first one. Illinois had cut the Ohio State lead to eight points and, after a flagrant foul by Duane Washington Jr., had Kofi Cockburn going to the free-throw line with 11:57 to play. The big man missed both of his attempts, and when the Illini took possession of the ball it ended with Buckeyes freshman Zed Key drawing a charge on Cockburn for a turnover.

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Converted Ohio State point guard Justice Sueing pushed the ball upcourt and found Ahrens in the right corner, where he buried the three-pointer. Instead of the lead being down to potentially three points, it was back to 11 and the Buckeyes had survived an eight-point swing.

“He’s such a good shooter that when he has space, you don’t want him to turn it down,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “We talk in general, don’t flinch. Don’t ever flinch. That was a great example of him not flinching.”

It also was an example of Ahrens accepting that the team’s likely best shot on the possession was going to be his, even if it was early in the shot clock against an Illinois team looking for opportunities to score quick points in transition. After his 3-for-5 effort against the Illini, Ahrens is up to 52.8% (28 for 53) this season and 50.0% (16 for 32) in league play.

If he’s open, like he was after Cockburn’s empty possession, odds are that’s going to be Ohio State’s best shot.

“(The coaches) put me in the backcourt away from the press to attack the action, so (Illinois) always had to keep a man back and keep an eye on me,” Ahrens said. “When I caught it, his hand wasn’t really up and coach told me to stay aggressive, don’t be timid, don’t be shy, so I shot it and I was confident in it and it went in.”

That also applied to a first-half drive that saw Ahrens attempt only his second two-point field goal of the season. As he drove into the paint, Ahrens lofted a floater that Cockburn swatted away as it came down, resulting in a goaltending call and his first non-three-pointer of the year.

Ahrens thanked Cockburn for the assistance.

“The way it came off and how tall Kofi is, I had to get it high in the air,” he said. “When I released it, I had a feeling it was gonna be short but he hit it on the way down so I was pretty happy with that.”