Bruised Buckeyes processing Illinois loss before embracing joy of March Madness

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
The Ohio State Buckeyes are announced before the Big Ten Tournament title game against the Illinois Fighting Illini on Sunday, March 14, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS – There will be time to appreciate the opportunity to participate in March Madness and the achievement of earning a high seed.

That’ll happen sometime in the next few days. On Selection Sunday, though, Ohio State was going to need a minute first. Gathered inside their locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Buckeyes had just fought Illinois to a physical, grueling overtime loss in the Big Ten tournament title game. Simultaneously, the official NCAA Tournament bracket reveal was getting underway, which would ultimately announce Ohio State as a No. 2 seed, its highest seeding in eight years.

That, and the opening-round matchup with No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, will sink in for the Buckeyes sometime in the not-too-distant future. Sunday evening, though, was chock full of emotion.

“It was an emotional locker room,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “I told them that they carry the weight of making every former Buckeye proud, every Buckeye fan, everybody who loves this university; and I told them they did. Listen, we came close to a championship and it’s exceedingly disappointing but what I’m not disappointed in is their resolve, their heart, their effort.”

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It took all of those latter adjectives just to get to where they were, sitting in the losing locker room in the final game before the official start of March Madness. Riding a four-game losing streak entering the Big Ten tournament, Ohio State played with fire in every game but gritted its way to wins against Minnesota, Purdue (in overtime) and then eventual No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed Michigan before pushing Illinois – another No. 1 seed – to overtime despite a depleted roster that had played one more game than the Fighting Illini.

The Buckeyes learned a lot about themselves in the course of their four-game sojourn toward the program’s first tournament championship in eight years. Those lessons, ones about resolve and heart and improved connectivity and defense, carried them this far and will serve them well when they open the NCAA Tournament on Friday against No. 15 seed Oral Roberts.

They also made this opportunity to win a title sting even more.

“Oh yeah, I’m most definitely proud of my team,” senior CJ Walker said. “Most definitely I’m hurt. I wanted to win a Big Ten title. That was a big goal for us. We came to the Big Ten tournament ready to play, prepared. I thought we played with a lot of confidence, playing the way we know how to play. I don’t regret anything that happened today.”

Walker, an Indianapolis native, had expected at least two-dozen fans to be in the stands watching him a season ago when the Big Ten tournament was to take place here at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. Instead, the world shut down due to coronavirus outbreak, and this was Walker’s chance for a memorable homecoming.

On the final shot of the game, with the margin out of reach, he hit a three-pointer to set the final score at 91-88 before slowly making his way to the locker room with his teammates. When they got there, senior forward Kyle Young, who missed the last two games with a concussion suffered in Friday’s win against the Boilermakers, was able to be there at least.

He’s one of multiple Ohio State players hoping the coming days will allow them to recharge and recover the form that helped turn the season around.

“I don’t know yet on him yet, to be honest with you,” Holtmann said when asked about Young’s status going forward. “I’m not sure when we’ll know specifically with him. We’ve got to get our medical staff and our team in a good place physically. Emotionally, we’ll bounce back, but we’ve got to get ourselves rested and right. It’s priority No. 1 for us.”

Throughout, Holtmann frequently glanced downward, searching for the words to fill the Zoom interview session. The coach reflected back on his talk with his players, who will now begin assimilating into the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“I tried to bring some perspective to it, which is hard in the moment, but I told them we’ve got to own the fact that we were close but didn’t quite get it done but also understand I was incredibly proud of our response and our effort,” he said. “I love this group. I absolutely love this group. I just, I love ‘em. Our coaching staff loves them.

“I can’t wait to get back to work with them. I’m excited about the next opportunity we get a chance to do this again, I really am.”

First, though, it was time to process the loss.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy