Early miscues set tone for Ohio State's historic upset loss to Oral Roberts

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Mar 19, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (middle) battles for the ball agains tOral Roberts Golden Eagles forward Kevin Obanor (0) and forward Francis Lacis (right) during the second half in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Mackey Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – It didn’t take long to see that a potentially historical upset could be in the making at Ohio State’s expense.

Not even two minutes into Friday’s first-round game with No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, No. 2 seed Ohio State had spotted the Golden Eagles a 7-0 run right out of the gate. The Buckeyes would respond with a 10-0 one of their own and push the lead to 17-12 with 14:15 to play. Then, missed shot by missed shot and turnover by turnover, Ohio State would fade.

There would be outbursts. There would be moments where Ohio State would look like the offense it had been for most of the season, one that entered the afternoon ranked No. 4 nationally according to KenPom.com. But there were too many of those “other” moments, the ones that allowed the upset-minded Golden Eagles to hover within striking distance and eventually emerge with a 75-72 overtime win.

When it was over, Duane Washington Jr. milled around midcourt, stunned after his clean, game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer didn’t fall. Hands on his head, Musa Jallow was fighting back tears. A season that had the Buckeyes in position for a No. 1 seed for much of February was at a shocking end, and there were no shortage of reasons why.

It started in the first half.

“I did not think we were as quick to loose balls as we needed to be early,” coach Chris Holtmann, on the bus ride back to Indianapolis and, eventually home, said. “They beat us to too much stuff. We had some self-inflicted turnovers. Our guys have had a great readiness to play all year. For whatever reason, us being slower to loose balls, I’ll put that on me.

“I did not think we had the necessary juice there early for whatever reason, but also give them credit for beating us to those loose balls.”

Shot by shot, Oral Roberts hung around and twice built a seven-point lead only for the Buckeyes to rally each time. During the first half, it was a 19-4 run that did it. The Buckeyes would pull even at 42 early in the second half, but the Golden Eagles put together a 7-0 run to go ahead 49-42 and officially put the Buckeyes on upset watch.

And yet, in spite of all that, the Buckeyes tied the game at 56, 58 and then at 60 before scratching out a 64-60 lead with 2:34 left when E.J. Liddell hit one of two free throws. Ohio State was poised for the knockout blow, especially as it forced a Kevin Obanor miss and Liddell blocked a Max Abmas shot, but following Liddell’s free throw the offense dried up.

First, Washington was stripped of the ball, leading to Liddell’s block of Abmas. But at the other end, Liddell turned it over, leading to a pair of Obanor free throws with 1:07 left. Washington would miss a shot to extend the lead, but Liddell was fouled on the put-back with 36.3 seconds left.

He missed the front end of the one-and-one, and Obanor would draw a foul on Musa Jallow at the other end and hit both free throws to tie the game with 14.9 seconds left. With one final opportunity to win in regulation, Washington missed a deep jumper at the buzzer.

“We were just trying to get in space and get downhill,” Holtmann said. “We were trying to get him to his left hand, get him downhill off of a ghost action.”

The Buckeyes never led in overtime. Once Walker missed a pull-up jumper and Obanor scored to give Oral Roberts a 66-64 lead, Ohio State couldn’t find the equalizer – although it would get two pretty good looks in the final seconds.

First, Justin Ahrens missed a three with about four seconds left, but Seth Towns was able to tip the rebound out to the top of the circle where Washington was waiting. His tying shot missed, and the Golden Eagles celebrated.

“They made some big time plays in the second half and overtime and we didn’t,” Walker said. “We had to take advantage of turnovers and missed shots and transition things we usually do take advantage of. It hurts.”

Walker’s time at Ohio State is over. The future for fellow senior Kyle Young, who didn’t play due to a concussion, is unknown. The NCAA will allow anyone who wants to return next season do so regardless of eligibility, and the Buckeyes will lobby Young – presuming a full return to health – to return.

Those are conversations for another day. Friday evening, the Buckeyes were staring their biggest NCAA Tournament loss by seed in program history directly in the face.

“We had no illusions this was going to be by any stretch anything other than a really challenging game,” Holtmann said. “It obviously was that from the very jump. Ultimately too many missed shots, too many missed free throws but give them credit for making the plays. Congratulations to them for moving on.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

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