Blossoming into a star, Duane Washington Jr. leading Ohio State in postseason run

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. (4) shoots over Michigan guard Eli Brooks (55) and forward Brandon Johns Jr. (23) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 13, 2021.

INDIANAPOLIS – The specific words escaped him, forgotten already in the aftermath of the thriller that had just transpired. As Ohio State headed to the locker room for halftime of Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinal against Michigan, assistant coach Jake Diebler and junior guard Duane Washington Jr. engaged in a little chat about the state of the game and his play.

What was said doesn’t really matter. What does matter is what the two discussed shortly before the Buckeyes began the second half with the ball and a 27-26 deficit, and that Diebler clearly recalled.

Big Ten tournament:Duane Washington, Buckeyes play for Kyle Young, beat Michigan to reach Big Ten title game

“I just told him to stick with it,” Diebler told The Dispatch. “I wanted to remind him of the belief that we had in him and then give him a couple strategic adjustments to help him offensively. I thought he did a really good job getting to some spots in the first half, especially on drives, but he didn’t quite execute some of the finishing that we had worked on and talked about.

“Just wanted to remind him of those things and let him know how much I love him and believe in him.”

It was a conversation that lasted more than a couple of seconds and took place as the rest of the team was milling about and getting psyched up to resume the game. After hard-fought wins against Minnesota and then Purdue, the latter in overtime not even 24 hours earlier, the Buckeyes were showing the effects of some fatigue and the cumulative loss of Kyle Young’s absence due to a concussion suffered during that game.

Ohio State was 10 for 33 (30.3%) from the floor through 20 minutes. Nine of those shots were Washington’s, two of which went in, giving him five halftime points on 1-of-6 shooting inside the three-point line. Then, on the first possession of the second half, he reclaimed the lead for the Buckeyes on a three-pointer.

Game on.

“Duane’s a prime-time player,” sophomore forward E.J. Liddell said. “Y’all seen him. Duane’s gonna be a huge factor for us down the road (in the NCAA Tournament). I’m happy I’m on his team. I wouldn’t want to play against him, for sure.”

Two possessions later, Washington finished a drive to the basket. He and Liddell would combine to score the first 22 points of the half for the Buckeyes, each chipping in 11. By the end of the game, Washington had scored 19 of his game-high 24 points during the second half while going 7 for 11 from the floor to lead the Buckeyes to the 68-67 win.

In Ohio State's three Big Ten tournament games, Washington has played a team-high 108 minutes and is averaging a team-best 20.0 points.

In two games against the Wolverines this season, Washington has scored 54 points. He’s a Grand Rapids, Michigan, native.

“We were really excited for this one and we got the one that quote-unquote mattered,” he said. “Everybody wanted to go to Michigan, Michigan State growing up where I’m from. It’s that extra little chip in the back in my head. I’m on the rivals, I’m on the dark side back home.”

That performance helped propel the Buckeyes into their first Big Ten tournament title game since 2013 and have Washington in line to become a national media darling when Ohio State enters the NCAA Tournament this week as a likely No. 2 seed. In the process, the four-game losing streak to close the regular season continues to fade further into the rearview mirror.

“He also understands, this is hard,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “Twitter coaches don’t always understand this is hard. His positive (attitude) is important, his energy. In a COVID year, where you test every morning, you’re isolated, his passion for playing and competing and being at Ohio State has made an enormous difference.”

That’s been an everyday occurrence, Diebler said, allowing the two to continue to strengthen a bond that is carrying the Buckeyes.

“I’m just so happy for him,” he said. “He deserves all the credit. He loves this game at a high level. It just makes your heart smile a little bit to see him having the success he’s had because you’re with him in some of the ups and downs, some of the inconsistencies.”

That, in turn, has helped Washington be receptive to the coaching he’s receiving. Against the Wolverines, Diebler said he pointed out to the junior that he wasn’t finishing his drives to the rim and instead was pulling up for runners or floaters that weren’t part of the plan.

“The little details make a big difference,” Diebler said. “His ability like you saw today to take something he may have struggled with in the first half and make that adjustment and execute it in the second half, it speaks to his basketball IQ and his coachability.”

And, as well, to why Ohio State is proving to be a tough out this postseason.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy