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Current Buckeyes drew inspiration from prior losses at Penn State in gritty win

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State's Kyle Young (25) reaches for a pass in front of Penn State's John Harrar during the first half on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in State College, Pa.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Maybe, just maybe, there was a little bit of extra skin in the game for No. 4 Ohio State on Thursday night.

It had been a little while since the Buckeyes had enjoyed any measure of success inside the Bryce Jordan Center. Winless in their last two visits to Penn State, their last road victory against the Nittany Lions came back on February 28, 2017.

It was the last of Thad Matta’s program-record 337 wins for Ohio State. Months later, Chris Holtmann would take over after Matta was fired, and the Buckeyes would be among the nation’s surprise teams with a 15-3 Big Ten finish. The only non-competitive game of that season, and ultimately one that would cost them a share of the league title, was a 79-56 loss at unranked Penn State.

That game, which saw the Buckeyes trail for 36:40 and fall behind by as many as 30 points, ended with the home crowd charging the floor and Penn State’s players standing on the scorers’ table pounding their chests.

Wednesday night, that incident was mentioned.

“Penn State always plays us tough no matter what,” sophomore forward E.J. Liddell told The Dispatch on Thursday night. “I remember a couple years ago we were No. 8 and they weren’t ranked and they came out and beat up and they stormed the court. (Holtmann) showed us a couple pictures of that, too. He didn’t let us forget at all.”

Ultimately, it was one of many breadcrumbs that helped lead No. 4 Ohio State to a seventh straight win with Thursday night’s 92-82 win, but there was a practical reason behind such an approach. Sunday, the Buckeyes will host No. 3 Michigan in the lone meeting between the teams this season and with the winner settling more into the driver’s seat in the race for a Big Ten title.

For that game to matter at its highest level, Ohio State had to take care of this one. The morning after the slideshow, Holtmann said he could tell during Thursday’s shootaround that his players weren’t already fixated on the Wolverines.

“I did not think that our guys were looking anything beyond this game,” he said. “I thought they were locked in on this game. I thought their preparation was very good. They brought the appropriate focus and I’m glad they’re rewarded with the win.

“They were locked in. I did not think our guys were looking at anything beyond this Penn State game.”

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This seemed to be a little bit personal for Holtmann, though. In his first season, the Nittany Lions didn’t just blow out the Buckeyes at the Bryce Jordan Center, but they swept them during the regular season and then knocked them out of the Big Ten tournament.

Last season, they added to a January to forget by handing the Buckeyes a 90-76 loss during which Penn State led by as many as 20. In his two prior trips to Penn State, Holtmann had seen his teams lead for a combined 90 seconds.

He didn’t need a history lesson to appreciate the win, though.

“They haven’t been close,” Holtmann said of the last two games here. “Obviously you’re aware of that as a coach. (It was) nothing personal in the sense of I have great respect for their players and Jim (Ferry). We have such a gauntlet here so if you feel like you have a chance to win a game late you want to close it out and win it because of what we have ahead of us. Some of that you lose sight in the moment and you’re just playing to win the next moment.

“I have not done a good job getting our guys ready for whatever reason for the offensive onslaught and physicality here. I don’t know if I did a great job tonight and we were able to weather it.”

Three of Ohio State’s final four games are against teams ranked among the top six nationally according to KenPom.com. It’s a gauntlet, and the Buckeyes know it. Friday, there will be a press conference to discuss the Wolverines, the challenge they present and the uniqueness of this year’s lone game between the rivals.

Thursday night, though, there was a real desire to just enjoy the moment.

“I’m going to enjoy tonight and then it’s right back tomorrow focusing on Michigan,” Liddell said. “Right now, I’m going to eat my (buffalo chicken) pizza and have a good night.”

Buckeyes struggle to contain Nittany Lions

Penn State fell to 4-10 in Big Ten play with the loss, but it couldn’t fault its offense. The Nittany Lions finished with the fourth-best offensive efficiency ranking against the Buckeyes this season and became the fourth team to score at least 80 points and still lose against Ohio State.

At the half, Penn State had shot 53.6% from the floor (15 for 28), was 7 for 13 (53.8%) from three and trailed 47-43. Holtmann called it a mix of poor defense and Penn State hitting some high-difficulty shots.

“We were not playing with enough force and did not close air space quickly enough,” he 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. That’s after first blush here, seeing it with the naked eye. We’ll see. Overall, we’ve got to be better on that end. We didn’t challenge enough shots.”

Here’s a wild stat: Ohio State is 4-0 when allowing teams to score at least 80 points. Iowa, with the nation’s No. 1 offense, is 1-5 in such games.

“Our offense carried us,” Holtmann said. “I thought our bench and our offense and that’s not always going to happen. We’re not always going to get that production offensively. Our offense carried us tonight and our bench, our production from our bench. All of them were really good.”

Tribute to John Thompson

When he came out for the game, Holtmann had a towel on his shoulder as part of a tribute to John Thompson, the late Georgetown coach.

“Those of us that grew up watching college basketball, you had certain guys that you really, really admired,” he said. “Obviously, we all know what John Thompson means to college basketball. I grew up watching their teams but I also grew up as a young player thinking about coaching saying, ‘You know what, I’d like to coach my team the way john Thompson coached his team. I’d love for people to say our teams play with that competitive spirit and discipline.”

Coaches around the country have taken part in the tribute put together by the National Association of Black Coaches.

“Now, mine fell off multiple times,” Holtmann said, while also acknowledging the passing of former coaches Lute Olson and John Chaney. “I didn’t wear it nearly as well as coach Thompson did. Those are icons in the game that we sorely miss and I’m glad we have a chance to honor them this week.”

E.J. Liddell leads the way

In 28 minutes, Liddell led the Buckeyes with 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Seventeen of those points came during the first half, and he might’ve had more if not for being relegated to the sideline for a few minutes during the second half.

“I got a bloody nose in the second half and it wouldn’t stop bleeding for a while,” he said. “It was definitely a physical game. I got hit with an elbow and then it just started bleeding.”

He would also hit what felt like a back-breaking three-pointer with 1:35 left to push the Ohio State lead back to nine points at 85-76.

“That was a big shot and it felt good,” he said.

Questionable pregame music

With about 20 minutes until the start of the game, Ohio State’s players were on the court for an extended period of time while Penn State was in its locker room. As is common in many Big Ten arenas, the moment presented an opportunity to play some music and try to mess with the mindset of the visitors.

At Rutgers, for example, the Buckeyes have gone through warmups while “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” played. When they take the court at Michigan’s Crisler Arena, the speakers typically blare out, “Lady In Red.”

Thursday night, Ohio State was treated to a polka-styled song that shouted out random cities from the Buckeye State while showing the likes of LeBron James and other famous Ohio natives. Then, though, the Crosby, Stills & Nash song, “Four Dead In Ohio” played before a return to the Ohio polka song.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy