Riding losing streak, emotional Buckeyes turn attention to Big Ten tournament

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State's Kyle Young blocks a shot by Illinois center Kofi Cockburn on Saturday. The Buckeyes are the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament and will play Thursday against the winner of a Wednesday game between Minnesota and Northwestern.

In the emotion of the moment, CJ Walker caught himself just in time.

Saturday night at Value City Arena, the fifth-year senior had just endured a heartbreaking loss in the final home game of his career. Ahead of No. 4 Illinois by four with 3:48 to play, No. 7 Ohio State would miss its final 10 shots as the Fighting Illini closed on a 9-0 run to hand the Buckeyes a 73-68 defeat.

Two weeks after a showdown with Michigan while both teams were considered No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, the losing streak was now four games and Walker was tearful.

Buckeyes basketball:Often unsung, Ohio State senior CJ Walker quietly gives peace of mind to Buckeyes

As is tradition during the Chris Holtmann era, each of the team’s seniors spoke to the assembled after the final whistle. While thanking his family, pledging his unwavering support to his 1-year-old daughter, Summer, and thanking his teammates for allowing him to lead them, the captain came just short of dropping a four-letter word while exhorting the Buckeyes to turn the page for the postseason.

“We’ve got a lot to go, but I want you all to know I love you all dearly from the bottom of my heart and I just appreciate you all,” Walker said, standing near the midcourt line. “Let’s try to figure this sh … let’s try to figure this out and try to get better as a team. Let’s try to get it together.”

The loss locked the Buckeyes in as the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament. They will play Thursday’s second game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, facing the winner of a Wednesday game between Minnesota and Northwestern.

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Walker’s speech was a message of hope on a night when the Buckeyes showed flashes of it for most of the first 36 minutes. A six-day layoff produced a rejuvenated Ohio State team that showed more fire and energy than in a 73-57 home loss to Iowa on Feb. 28, one that erased a double-digit first-half deficit and frustrated all-Big Ten center Kofi Cockburn throughout.

Ohio State guard CJ Walker shoots against Illinois guard Andre Curbelo on Saturday.

It just wasn’t enough, and the result was a lot of teary eyes both on the court and in the crowd as Kyle Young and Walker both tried to strike the balance of optimism, appreciation and hurt. When Young’s voice faltered as he tried to speak about his late father, Mark, someone yelled out, “We love you KY!”

Along the baseline, junior guard Duane Washington Jr., who had missed five of Ohio State’s final 10 shots, was inconsolable. He shared a brief embrace with Walker, aimlessly wandered the baseline and frequently covered his face with either his jersey or a white towel. When the speeches were done, he went directly to the locker room.

“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.”

Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. scores against Illinois' Trent Frazier on Saturday.

The job now is for the Buckeyes to harness their disappointment and use it to fuel a conference tournament run. It has been seven years since Ohio State has won multiple games in the Big Ten tournament, keeping in mind the cancelation of last year’s tournament. Of the last six times it has been played, the Buckeyes have lost their opening game twice.

Had the Buckeyes held on against the Illini, they would have been in position to clinch a double bye in the conference tournament and not play until Friday.

“Fellas, we’ve got a lot of work left to do,” Young told his teammates during his speech. “A lot of season left. It’s a disappointing loss tonight, but I know we’re going to come in and work hard every day. Let’s get back to work.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy