Ohio State falls in basketball as Xavier exorcises demons of the past

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Xavier guard Adam Kunkel pumps up the crowd going into a timeout in the second half on Thursday.

CINCINNATI — Paul Scruggs was not about to let history repeat itself.

Only 16.3 seconds remained in Thursday night’s Gavitt Games showdown between Xavier and No. 19 Ohio State, and Scruggs was going to the free-throw line with a chance to essentially ice the game. The Musketeers had led since the opening possession, but the Buckeyes had trimmed an 11-point lead to two points on a Jamari Wheeler 3-pointer and fouled the fifth-year Xavier guard to stop the clock.

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So there he was, heading to the line with a chance to push the lead against the Buckeyes back to two possessions in the final seconds.

Sound familiar?

This time, though, Scruggs hit both of his attempts and added two more with five seconds to play to give Xavier (3-0) a 71-65 win against Ohio State (3-1) that sated a rabid home crowd baying for a reckoning for the last time these teams played. And in case they forgot about that history, a pregame video showing the 2007 NCAA Tournament game the Buckeyes won in overtime played on the Cintas Center scoreboard in the final minutes before the tip.

In that 2007 game, Justin Cage’s missed free throw with 9.3 seconds left kept the Xavier lead at three points, and Ron Lewis’ tying 3-pointer lives forever in Ohio State history. But the clear focus for the Musketeers on Thursday night was outlined in the pregame hype video showing clips from that game with the tag line: “What’s done is done. This is a new chapter.”

It just wasn’t one Ohio State fans wanted to read.

“We came to shootaround and there were 250 students greeting us in a really friendly way on the way in,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “That’s good for our team. It’s good for college basketball. Doesn’t feel good right now. Feels terrible, but I’m glad we were part of it.”

Trailing by 10 points with eight minutes to play, the Buckeyes made it interesting with a 10-3 run but never had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. Scruggs had a lot to do with that, scoring eight of his 14 points during the final 68 seconds of play as that crowd of students roared. Some of them had been in a line stretching around the arena since before 8 a.m.

The Xavier student section cheers during Thursday's game. Students began lining up before 8 a.m. to get into the 6:30 p.m. game.

It was the first true road environment Ohio State had seen since its final game pre-pandemic: a March 8, 2020, game at sold-out Michigan State on Senior Day. Only two Buckeyes on this year’s team were part of that game — E.J. Liddell and Justin Ahrens.

“We knew what to expect when we came here,” Liddell said. “I guess they had bad blood. First time for a lot of young guys. My first time since two years ago at Michigan State. We’ve got to learn and keep moving forward.”

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Ohio State’s last loss to another Ohio team came in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, when Dayton beat the Buckeyes 60-59. During the regular season, you have to go back to Dec. 5, 1998, for the last such Ohio State loss — and that one came on the road, too, when Toledo hosted the Buckeyes and beat them 64-63.

It was only the third time Ohio State has played an on-campus road game against an in-state school since the 1989-90 season. Xavier had not hosted Ohio State since the teams played at the old Schmidt Fieldhouse on Dec. 31, 1934. The Buckeyes won that game in overtime 31-28.

A lot has changed since then. Thursday night showed that when it comes to Ohio State, the passion among other Ohio teams has only grown. Xavier coach Travis Steele said he had heard from multiple former players in the weeks leading into the game about the chance to beat the Buckeyes at the Cintas Center.

“I wanted to make sure (our) guys knew the background to what it meant to our former players,” he said. “This was a statement opportunity for us.”

For a student section full of fans wearing Ohio outline shirts with the words “The Xavier University” filling the space, it felt like a state-ment as well.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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