CJ Walker shakes off hand injury to spark Ohio State's win at Wisconsin
MADISON, Wis. — There’s not an established hierarchy for who leads Ohio State onto the court for pregame warmups. When the Buckeyes emerge from the locker room, it has been anybody from junior guard Duane Washington Jr. to walk-on Harrison Hookfin taking them into their customary layup lines.
On Saturday at the Kohl Center, however, there was no doubt who would take the reins.
When No. 15 Ohio State took the floor to face No. 10 Wisconsin, it was fifth-year senior guard CJ Walker at the forefront. After missing four games with torn ligaments in his right hand that potentially could have ended his season, Walker returned to action and finished with eight points, three assists and one steal as the Buckeyes scored on their opening possession and never trailed in a 74-62 win.
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Walked admitted afterward that he harbored worries about reinjuring the hand, but they didn’t last.
“I feel like once I get in between the lines, all the worries go out the window,” Walker said. “Going into the game it was like, ‘I don’t want to hit it again or have the wrong movement and re-injure it,’ but once I got into the game I was never hesitant or nervous or anything like that.”
The injury took place during the preseason, but Walker played through it before shutting down following a tough performance in a 77-60 loss at Minnesota on Jan. 3. For roughly three weeks, Walker kept the thumb in a protective brace and refrained from any basketball activities with the hope that rest would ward off the need for season-ending surgery.
He was cleared last week and after two practices was ready to jump back into action. It ended the longest non-COVID break since Walker first started playing basketball.
“Fans don’t always see his help awareness defensively, his communication,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “His speed gives us a different element. We lacked a little bit of burst at times against some of these teams we played in this stretch and maybe it hurt us (in a loss to) Purdue. He provides that.”
Walker’s 31.5 minutes per game topped the Buckeyes when he left the lineup, but he didn’t immediately assume the same role as before. Justice Sueing remained the starter at the point as Walker played 24 minutes against the Badgers.
The veteran’s return created a ripple effect across the roster. Lineup mainstays Justin Ahrens and Sueing played 25 minutes each after averaging 29.0 and 33.0, respectively, during the three games without Walker and injured guard Jimmy Sotos.
Freshman guard Meechie Johnson Jr., who had averaged 16.3 minutes in the previous three games, played only three minutes against the Badgers. And after averaging 7.0 minutes in the last three games, junior wing Musa Jallow did not see any playing time Saturday.
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Walker played the final 14:42 of the game as the Buckeyes held off Wisconsin’s comeback attempt from a 57-47 deficit with 8½ minutes remaining, cutting the lead to 62-58 and getting the ball after a Sueing turnover 4:16 to play.
The Badgers missed a three-point attempt, however, and Washington drew a foul and made both free throws with 3:40 to play, and Wisconsin got no closer than six points the rest of the way.
“It was like a restart,” Walker said. “I’ve been out for almost a month and the team has been playing really well. It was that feeling of not wanting to mess anything up so you just let the game come to you and do what you do. That’s what I did.”
Sueing’s time at the point has given Holtmann another look, and it’s one he said he doesn’t plan to abandon even with a healthy Walker. Going forward, Walker said he will continue to work on strengthening his hand.
He certainly is thankful to be playing, considering what he could be facing had his hand not responded to rest and rehab.
“My hand could’ve kept me out for a long part of the season,” he said. “Being my senior year, I most definitely was nervous but I just took the time out, did what I had to do to get better. I came back and had a really good game against a really good team on the road.”