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After holding off pesky Penn State, Buckeyes now ready to look at Michigan showdown

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State's E.J. Liddell, here blocking a shot by Penn State's John Harrar on Thursday, said coach Chris Holtmann made sure the Buckeyes were not overlooking the game in State College, Pa.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – When Chris Holtmann sat his players down one night before playing Penn State, he only had one thought about one opponent on his mind.

It was Wednesday night, and the No. 4 Buckeyes were preparing to eat dinner when the photos were shown. There stood the likes of Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens, celebrating with their fellow Nittany Lions, standing on the scorers’ table and soaking in a 23-point win against No. 8 Ohio State.

Holtmann remembers. So entering Thursday night’s game, with a home Sunday showdown against No. 3 Michigan looming just ahead, he made sure his players did, too.

Then they went out and won, 92-82, to take a seven-game streak into the game with the Wolverines.

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

The Bryce Jordan Center hadn’t been kind to Holtmann and the Buckeyes. Since Ohio State won there on February 28, 2017 – the last of Thad Matta’s program-record 337 career wins – it had led for a total of 90 seconds during its two subsequent trips and trailed by as many as 30 points at one point.

Thursday, there was no white-clad crowd to urge on the upset. The Buckeyes took the lead 1:10 in the game on a Duane Washington Jr. three, added consecutive ones from Justin Ahrens and Liddell and would hold the lead until the second half while at one point pushing Penn State’s deficit to 10 points.

The Nittany Lions would make a run, because that’s what they do against the Buckeyes, and that would top out with a 59-51 lead five minutes into the second half. Then Ohio State did what it’s done this season: it drew a line, started to get stops and caught fire offensively. Starting with a pair of CJ Walker free throws with 13:24 left, the Buckeyes would put together a 15-0 run capped by a three-pointer from freshman Gene Brown with 9:40 left.

It was an eight-point lead, and Penn State wouldn’t get closer than four points the rest of the way as Ohio State would improve to 4-0 when allowing teams to score at least 80 points. The defense occasionally had Holtmann trying to figure out if his players weren’t playing hard enough or if the Nittany Lions were simply making tough shots, but it wasn’t enough for the upset.

“You’re not going to come in here and just take the game from them,” Walker, who had 13 points for his third straight double-digit scoring effort, said. “Ohio State hasn’t won here in the past four years. That was a big thing for us, to change that narrative.”

Ohio State's Kyle Young reaches for a pass in front of Penn State's John Harrar on Thursday in State College, Pa.

Wednesday afternoon, Holtmann said the Buckeyes had not spent one second looking to the Michigan game or preparing for the Wolverines. The coach said he could tell that his players were focused on the task at hand, and not the Wolverines, in shootaround the morning of the game.

“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.”

Now that can change. Thursday night, though, the focus was on enjoying another win.

“Right now, I’m going to eat my (buffalo chicken) pizza and have a good night,” Liddell said.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy