Notes: OSU's prior loss at Iowa fueled Justin Ahrens, Duane Washington this time around
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The seeds for the latest season-defining win were planted a few days in advance.
Before No. 7 Ohio State braved a blizzard, endured its bus getting stuck while trying to return to the hotel following Thursday’s shoot-around and took the court against No. 8 Iowa, coach Chris Holtmann had a lowlight video to show his players. It came two days before the Buckeyes left town, and it featured clips of the last time they had played at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
You know, the game that would become a nine-point loss during which Iowa opened with a 16-3 scoring run and never really looked back against an Ohio State team either too helpless or hapless to resist.
“We just looked all out of sorts (in that game),” junior Justin Ahrens told The Dispatch. “We looked around before we went to practice that day and said, ‘Yo, we’re not letting this happen again. We can play with anybody in the country. We know how good we are.’ We came in with that mindset and came out with the win.”
Ahrens would play an important role in what would become an 89-85 win. So would Duane Washington Jr., E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young, who each finished with a team-high 16 points. So would CJ Walker, who dished out a career-high nine assists with just one turnover.
So would most of the roster, as the Buckeyes won their fourth road game against a top-15 team this season. The win comes on the heels of a 79-68 win at No. 15 Rutgers on January 9, an 87-81 win at No. 14 Illinois one week later and a 74-62 win at No. 10 Wisconsin one week after that.
They did it by limiting Luka Garza, who was honored before the game for scoring his 2,000th career point but finished with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting. The Big Ten’s reigning player of the year entered the game averaging 26.5 points per game.
They did it by tying a season high with 14 three-pointers on 32 attempts, their third-best shooting performance from deep this year. Of those 14, six provided the turnaround and then the cushion needed to withstand Iowa’s final push.
After Garza stepped into what would be his lone three-point make of the game to give Iowa an 11-point lead, Washington answered a moment later by hitting consecutive threes from the same spot on the left wing. It energized a team that looked to be on the verge of letting the Hawkeyes blow the game open.
“I thought he got on a string where he played with a lot of confidence similar to the Rutgers game at home,” Holtmann said of Washington. “It did spread. It gave the rest of the group a lot of confidence. That’s who Duane is. As long as he’s competing, I want him hunting. I loved his confidence in that stretch.”
He would finish 3 for 9 from three and 6 for 15 from the floor overall. Ahrens, meanwhile, was scoreless at the half and missed his first four three-point attempts before a stretch that saw him make two straight, Young add one from the left corner and Ahrens finish it off with another three as Ohio State turned a 76-75 lead into an 88-81 lead with 2:39 left.
It was a far cry from last year’s game.
“My job this week was to let the guys know that this is the toughest game on our schedule,” Washington said. “I really nailed it home to the guys that this is really important. We had to lock into every aspect. We reminded them what happened to us here last year.”
When Holtmann reached the locker room to celebrate, the roar of the Buckeyes could be heard clear down the hallway and out inside the seating bowl of the arena.
Nation taking notice
It’s the type of win that has ESPN openly wondering if Ohio State has played itself into contention for a No. 1 seed – and with good reason. The Buckeyes have seven Quadrant 1 wins in the NCAA’s NET evaluation rankings, most in the nation.
According to ESPN’s research team, Ohio State’s five wins against teams in the Associated Press top 25 this season are the most in Division I. So are their four road wins in that category.
The Buckeyes are now the No. 8 team in the KenPom.com rankings. At 9-4 in the Big Ten, they have as much claim as anyone to be a title contender in a year where it’s still unclear how the award will be decided upon. Michigan leads the league at 8-1 but COVID issues have limited the Wolverines to four fewer games than the Buckeyes. Likewise, Illinois has a better winning percentage (.727) than the Buckeyes (.692), but the 8-3 Fighting Illini have played two fewer games.
Holtmann was actually asked what seed he felt his team deserved following the win.
“I have no idea,” he said. “You know me by now. I don’t look at that stuff. You could probably tell me, but we have the hardest schedule that I’ve been a part of in this final four-week stretch. I love coaching this team and I love us getting better, but we’ve got a big challenge Monday at Maryland.”
“We’re going to take it in the locker room,” Washington said. “We’re going to talk about what we talk about, analyze the win, learn about it, forget it and move on. The people around the country can take this however they want to take this. We haven’t listened to what people say about us. We’re locked in to the max right now.”
Stopping Luka Garza
The Buckeyes relied on their frontcourt rotation of Liddell, Young and freshman Zed Key to try and make life difficult for Garza.
His 16 points tied a season-low total and were his fewest in Big Ten play this season. Only five of them came during the second half.
“We wanted to key in and we had to play the best post defense we played all year in this game but obviously we didn’t want to forget about everyone else,” Young said. “It was a full team defensive effort.”
“They put him in such great spots and move him around,” Holtmann said. “We mixed up our coverages between trapping and digging ball-side. We just had to make, he had to have a body on him because he’s the most difficult matchup in the country. I thought Zed’s minutes were really critical, and Kyle’s mobility against him and his fight was essential for us.”
Key finished with four fouls, but he had eight points and seven rebounds in only 14:27
“He battled,” Holtmann said of the freshman. “He’s shown that all year. He’s a big kid, right? He’s 260 (pounds), he’s strong and he’s naturally physical and has long arms. He was able to disrupt just enough of his shots. I thought his length bothered (Garza) just enough.”
In his last six games, Key is 15 for 18 (83.3%) from the floor, all from two-point range.
Duane Washington bounces back
He still took a team-high 15 shots and earned a quick hook or two during the game from Holtmann, but Washington was more effective and impactful than he’s been recently.
In his last three games entering Thursday, Washington was empty on 10 two-point field goals, 5 for 20 (25.0%) from three and 5 for 30 (16.7%) overall. This was his first double-digit scoring game since he had 21 in the loss to Purdue on January 19. In those last three games, Washington had averaged 8.3 points per game.
“Keep putting the work in,” he said. “I’ve been in the gym. Never satisfied, especially not these past three games. We’ve come out with a W. That always helps. At the end of the day, I want to win. I’ll go 0 for whatever as long as we win. I’ve been through the slumps and the ups and downs and I’m starting to figure it out.”
Meechie Johnson, other role players chip in
Key wasn’t the only reserve to make an impact.
Freshman Meechie Johnson Jr., who had two points in his last four games while playing only a few minutes as a backup point guard, hit two threes during the first half to help carry the offense. The second one in particular was impressive as he launched from deep behind the arc.
He finished with six points in 9:41.
Classmate Gene Brown got into the three-point barrage during the second half, banking in one that answered a Joe Wieskamp three and pulling the Buckeyes back within a point with 10:40 left.
Buckeyes men's basketball:Freshmen Zed Key, Gene Brown turn limited chances into success for Ohio State basketball
“They had some huge contributions,” Washington said. “Meechie’s like my little brother. I told him shoot with confidence and he went out and made some big shots. Zed did a great job attacking Garza in the post. Gene banked in a three. Bank was open. All those contributions were huge today.”
Kyle Young, sharpshooter
Holtmann spent much of the preseason preaching the belief that, while he wouldn’t be on Kaleb Wesson’s level, Young would be able to add a more consistent three-point shot to his repertoire.
He entered the Iowa game 5 for 17 (29.4%) this season and 9 for 46 (19.6%) for his career, but for the first time ever he made more than one in a game. Young was perfect on his two attempts.
“It felt good,” he said. “I haven’t taken a lot of threes. My numbers aren’t high there, but it’s something I’ve continued to work on. I’m trying to do what my team needs me. I was feeling confident.”
Added Holtmann, “I’m not saying Kyle Young’s going to make four threes in a game, but I think he’s starting to show maybe everybody else what we’ve seen every day in practice, how clean his shooting looks. It’s great to see for that young man.”
By the numbers
*This was Young’s 100th career game for Ohio State.
*Ahrens is now 12 for 24 (50.0%) for three in his career against Iowa.
*Ohio State now has two wins this season while allowing a team to score at least 85 points. The Buckeyes won at Notre Dame, 90-85, on December 5. Prior to that, their last win while allowing that many points was a 92-85 win against UMass in the 2008 NIT championship game.
“I think guys are playing to their strengths. I think we have to keep doing that. You look at a guy like Meechie Johnson today, he really stemmed the tied when we were on our heels a little bit with some big shots. Gene gave us some good minutes. We had different bench guys step up. I thought we had guys do what they do.” – Holtmann
“I had a good feeling. We were down 11, got some open looks and was able to knock them down. One of the things I strive to create is a positive energy in the gym. Every time somebody’s open, knock that down Kyle, Justin. They hear me. We make eye contact every time. That kind of reassurance and building confidence is huge. They hear my voice and I’m giving them energy and manifesting it’s going to go in.” – Washington, on his back-to-back threes
“With as good a team as Iowa is, you know they’re going to be able to make runs. For us, it was just sticking with it, not getting discouraged. We always say don’t flinch. D hit those big threes and got us hyped up and got us back in the game.” - Young