Notebook: On senior day for CJ Walker and Kyle Young, Buckeyes take emotional loss
Standing near center court, CJ Walker did everything he could to hold back the tears. Moments later, Kyle Young was facing the same situation.
Throughout, standing along the baseline several feet from his Ohio State teammates, Duane Washington Jr. was doing the same thing.
It was the end of senior day at Value City Arena, an evening that saw the No. 7 Buckeyes host No. 4 Illinois with a chance to end the three-game losing streak. Ohio State had enjoyed six days to prepare after a discouraging loss to Iowa the previous Sunday and, after a sluggish opening few possessions, finally settled in, rallied and held a 68-64 lead with less than four minutes to play when it all ground to a halt.
Ten missed shots to close the game later, Illinois had closed on a 9-0 run and emerged with a 73-68 win. Washington had taken five of those shots. And as his senior teammates said their goodbyes, he could hardly watch.
Occasionally aimlessly wandering the baseline, Washington spoke to no one as Walker and Young spoke to the crowd. Occasionally, he pulled his jersey over his face. At other times, he clenched a white towel in his fist, or used it to likewise cover his face. At one point, Washington and Walker shared an embrace while a video played on the scoreboard.
When it was done, he went directly to the locker room as some of his teammates hugged or otherwise tried to share the emotions of the moment. What Washington was feeling internally is known only to him. To coach Chris Holtmann and his seniors, though, it was clear.
“He’s fine,” Holtmann said. “He’s just disappointed. He wanted to win for his seniors. He was disappointed. I don’t know what reaction you want a young man to make after the game. He loves CJ. He loves Kyle. That was probably part of it. He was so emotional because he wanted it so bad for those guys.”
At one point during the game, Walker and Washington exchanged words with each other in the middle of a possession, with Walker pointing to his head and gesturing to his backcourt mate. It marked the second straight game the two had a similar on-court interaction, but Walker said it’s normal.
“It was more on the defensive end, communication,” the senior said. “We weren’t arguing or anything like that. We’re really close so we know how to talk to each other. We were just talking on the defensive end what we needed to do to win the game. It was kind of intense in the moment.”
That Ohio State found a way to fight its way back into the game was largely due to Washington. Early on, junior Justice Sueing drew the defensive assignment on Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu, who was back in action after missing three games with a facial injury, and the all-Big Ten player scored eight points in the span of barely 3½ minutes before Washington was switched onto him. He would score 11 the rest of the way with Washington as his primary defender.
Washington, too, had a first-half outburst, scoring eight points in less than three minutes. He would score seven the rest of the way, but he also would finish with a career-high-tying six assists.
“I thought he played with really good poise throughout the game,” Holtmann said.
The final four minutes were another story for everybody. Washington would assist on E.J. Liddell’s three-pointer with 3:48 to play, which would be the final points of the night for the Buckeyes. On the next possession, Washington missed a three-pointer but Young kept the possession alive only to have Washington miss a drive to the rim.
One possession later, still ahead 68-64, Washington missed on a contested drive to the left block with 2:29 to play. A little more than a minute later, with Illinois now tied at 68, Washington missed a three-pointer and Dosunmu converted a three-point play at the other end with 44.7 seconds left to give the Illini the lead.
Washington would miss his final three-point attempt with 17 seconds left and the final score already set.
“He forced a couple,” Holtmann said of that stretch. “I think he had a couple clean ones, but he’s got to play with more poise in those situations and he will.”
It wasn’t just him. In those final 228 seconds…
*Justin Ahrens missed a three-pointer with 3:14 left and the lead still at 68-64
*Young missed a three-pointer with 1:51 left and Ohio State ahead 68-65
*E.J. Liddell missed a contested jumper in the paint with 29 seconds left and Illinois ahead 71-65
*Ahrens and Liddell each missed threes with 10 and four seconds left, respectively
“We were trying to play through the paint, be aggressive, create fouls,” Walker said. “Just be aggressive. We just missed some tough shots at the end. I feel like we needed better poise going into that stretch.”
That wasn’t just on Washington.
“I thought collectively we had poor ball-screen defense there against Ayo late and I think some of that was affected by our offensive, a couple guys disappointed about their decision-making,” Holtmann said. “These guys wanted the game. Just keep teaching Duane the situations where he’s got to read the game and read the game better, but I thought his decision-making at parts of the game was really good.”
Young’s three, in particular, looked good when he let it fly.
“There was a few times we were getting good looks (late),” he said. “We were trying to play through the paint, just get the team’s best shot. Just stuff wasn’t falling for us. We wanted to try to be more forceful, get inside and play inside-out but we weren’t able to do that. We got open shots but they just weren’t falling.”
Buckeyes bench tightens
Holtmann went with a tighter, nine-man rotation than has been the norm this season.
All five starters played at least 28 minutes while Ahrens played 22 minutes off the bench. Otherwise, Zed Key played for seven minutes, Musa Jallow for six and Seth Towns for five. Among those three, Key finished with four points and the other two were scoreless.
Freshmen Meechie Johnson Jr. and Gene Brown, rotation players who had been toward the end of the bench, did not see any playing time.
For Ahrens, it marked his first game with multiple threes since he was 3 for 7 in a February 18 win against Penn State. Since that game, Ahrens was 0 for 2 in the loss to Michigan, did not attempt a three in the loss at Michigan State and 1 for 2 in the loss to Iowa.
Against the Fighting Illini, Ahrens was 2 for 7.
“I thought he was aggressive,” Holtmann said. “One he probably could’ve late there, I thought he played with necessary aggressiveness and guys were screening to get him open. One he probably could’ve fed there late to E.J., but I liked his aggressiveness.”
Justice Sueing battles
When the Buckeyes weren’t making shots early, Sueing was doing his share of the heavy lifting. Of the first 15 missed shots of the game, Sueing had rebounded five of them. He would finish with 15 points and eight rebounds in 34 minutes despite dealing with a groin injury.
“I thought he was active, active on the glass,” Holtmann said. “I thought he did some really good things. Just focus on him playing to his strengths. He is battling this groin injury that has limited his practice significantly. Getting him healthy and get him playing to his strengths. I thought his effort on the glass was really good. Defensively he can continue to grow.”
Big Ten tournament seed clinched
Had the Buckeyes won, they had the chance to earn the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament and the double bye that comes with it. Instead, Ohio State will be the No. 5 seed and as of Saturday night was set face the winner of an opening-day game between No. 13 seed Northwestern and No. 12 seed Minnesota for the right to face No. 4 seed Purdue.
The Buckeyes split their season series with Northwestern, lost their lone game at Minnesota by 17 points and were swept by the Boilermakers.
“Just preparation,” Walker said when asked for his thoughts about the tournament. “I don’t know who we’re playing yet. Going into practice worrying about ourselves, staying connected, being better and more consistent. I felt like we were in the game the whole time. We’ve got to find a way to get better shots and get the stops that we need.”
The Nuthouse returns…sort of
Although there will be a limited number of fans at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, the Buckeyes closed out the regular season in front of families and a few close friends due to Big Ten policy. That didn’t stop Ohio State from welcoming in seven senior members of the official student section, the “Buckeye Nuthouse,” for one final game.
All seven were perched in section 110, somewhat diagonally behind the Illinois bench area. When he saw them shortly before tipoff, Holtmann acknowledged their presence.
“Love them,” he said. “We just loved having them there. I love those guys and those guys have been, the Nuthouse, we desperately missed them, particularly in these last three home games. I loved seeing them there. We’re so grateful they took the initiative to get over here. It means a lot to them. We love the Nuthouse. Appreciate them. We love those seniors that have committed a lot of time to come over here and support us and give us great energy.
“I wanted to go hug every one of them. Just couldn’t do that, they were up there pretty high.”
By the numbers
*After making 11 of 15 layups during the first half, Illinois only had three such attempts in the second half. It made all three.
“We came in at halftime and saw what they were shooting,” Young said. “That was something we had to focus on and an area we had to take pride in. we just had to play harder. They were getting way too many easy layups in the first half. We just know we had to step it up defensively and bring more intensity. We needed to play harder for sure.”
*Ohio State had won eight straight games as a ranked team against Illinois. The last time the Buckeyes lost to the Illini while ranked came on Jan. 5, 2013, when No. 11 Illinois beat No. 8 Ohio State 74-55.
*The Buckeyes are 2-2 on senior day under Holtmann.
*Of Ohio State’s eight losses, this was the second-highest offensive efficiency rating for the Buckeyes behind only the Michigan game.
“We were certainly better (offensively) than we were against Iowa, but I just think we’ve got to keep getting better in certain areas. We were too slow to a couple loose balls and didn’t think we played with the necessary poise there late, but there were some really good things that came out of the game, some really good moments.” – Holtmann
“It’s tough. I was thinking about this day for a while. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. It definitely hit me, being here today, not really knowing what my future holds yet. Thinking about all the memories I created here, the great people I met, great teammates, coaches. It’s hard not to think about all that but you try to focus in as much as possible.” – Young
“The Big Ten is a tough conference. We played with a lot more urgency. We moved the ball. We got shots that we wanted and that’s what we haven’t done the previous three games. We did things better than we did the previous three games. We’ve got to be better at finishing games.” – Walker