CJ Walker ignites crucial run, Buckeyes shake off nemesis Penn State in road win
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Pick a statistic, and it’s not been kind to Ohio State under Chris Holtmann at the Bryce Jordan Center.
CJ Walker helped turn a few of them on their heads. With Penn State rolling and No. 4 Ohio State on upset alert during the second half, the senior guard bailed out his teammates with a three-pointer on a poor offensive possession to cut into a game-high, eight-point deficit.
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It settled the Buckeyes. Then, with 13:24 left and the Nittany Lions' lead still at seven points, Walker drew a foul on a drive and hit both free throws. It was the start of a game-changing, 15-0 run that led Ohio State (18-4, 12-4 Big Ten) to their first road win against Penn State (7-11, 4-10) in the Holtmann era, 92-82.
"I’ve been in college basketball for a long time," Walker said. "The game is full of runs. Penn State is a really good team. They made a lot of tough shots early. I gathered my team together to let them know it’s just one possession at a time. Just keep fighting. That’s what I feel we do well."
When Gene Brown hit what would be his third three-pointer of Big Ten play, Ohio State had a 69-61 lead with 9:40 to play and some necessary breathing room. Penn State wouldn't go away, but it wouldn't get closer than four points the rest of the way, either.
With the win, the Buckeyes will enter Sunday’s showdown with No. 3 Michigan as winners of seven straight and 10 of their last 11. They have also topped 90 points for a fourth time this season.
E.J. Liddell led the Buckeyes with 23 points and Duane Washington Jr. had 21. They scored 44 points on combined 14-for-21 shooting.
In their two prior trips to Penn State with Holtmann at the helm, the Buckeyes had led for a total of 90 seconds in a pair of double-digit losses. At one point, during the 2017-18 season, Ohio State trailed by 30 points on this floor.
"They haven’t been close," Holtmann said of those two games. "Obviously you’re aware of that as a coach."
This time, the Buckeyes took a lead on a Washington three-pointer only 70 seconds into the game, and when Justin Ahrens and Liddell followed suit on the next two possessions Ohio State had already held a lead longer than its two prior trips here. And thanks to some early hot shooting, the Buckeyes built a 10-point lead at 22-12 and were still ahead by nine when Liddell hit consecutive jumpers to give the Buckeyes a 31-22 lead with 7:53 to play in the first half.
But just like when these teams played at Value City Arena on January 27, that would dissipate as Penn State fought back. A 9-0 run capped by consecutive threes from Jamari Wheeler tied the score and led to Holtmann calling timeout with 5:42 left in the half.
It didn’t slow the hot shooting for either team. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions would combine to score on the final 10 possessions of the half, and it ended when Seth Towns passed up a contested three-pointer with about two seconds left to find Ahrens in the right corner for a wide-open one that he got off right before the buzzer.
It swished through the net, and Ohio State took a 47-43 lead into the break.
"We were not playing with enough force and did not close air space quickly enough," Holtmann said. "I also thought that we were not physical enough on the ball at the point of attack. I did not think our ball screen coverage was connected enough. But I also thought they made some tough shots."
Both teams dealt with injuries during the final minute: Wheeler went down hard after a foul on Walker and had to be helped off the court, while Ohio State’s Musa Jallow landed on a player’s foot and limped off with an apparent left ankle injury. He was checked out by the training staff and headed to the locker room before the break while Wheeler couldn’t watch the final seconds as he sat with a towel over his head on the baseline.
At the half, Ohio State was 17 for 26 (65.4%) from the floor with 14 assists while Penn State was 15 for 28 (53.6%).
Towns fell awkwardly during the second half and limped off the court with 10:38 to play. He missed the last two seasons with an injured knee and received attention from the training staff while watching the remainder of the game from the bench area.
"I think he’s gonna be fine," Holtmann said of Towns. "I’ll have to talk with (the training staff). We are really banged up. I almost had to pull Kyle in the guts of the game, a couple other guys, Musa. We are really banged up. We need a really good day in the training room tomorrow."
Holtmann wore a towel over his shoulder in memory of the late Georgetown coach John Thompson.