In final minute of swings, Ohio State's Meechie Johnson Jr. lands final blow

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Roughly one dozen seconds had passed since Meechie Johnson had been part of a potentially game-changing play.

Ohio State guard Meechie Johnson Jr. (0) reacts after scoring against Seton Hall during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Scott Audette)

With Ohio State clinging to a 76-74, the Buckeyes had the ball with about a 17-second difference between the game and shot clock and a chance to finish off No. 21 Seton Hall. Instead, an ill-advised E.J. Liddell pass from the right wing back toward midcourt was lost by the second-year guard and the Pirates got a game-tying layup from Jamir Harris with 14 seconds to play.

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann still had a timeout to burn. He opted to keep it in his pocket and let an unspecified few players win the game for the Buckeyes, and after taking a pass from Kyle Young well behind the 3-point line Johnson gave a soft jab step on Bryce Aiken and pulled up from about 25 feet.

The shot banged home with about two seconds left, setting off a celebration on the court at Suncoast Credit Union Arena as Ohio State won, 79-76.

“Just it’s a blessing from God, man,” Johnson said after the game. “Ohio State’s always been a dream school of mine, and to be in that moment like that, to help win the game with your team and for the state of Ohio, for Cleveland, everything, man. It means a lot.”

Ohio State men's basketball:For Meechie Johnson Jr., Ohio State celebration is a family affair

It’s been a long time coming for Johnson, a prized recruit from Garfield Heights, Ohio, who missed his entire junior season of high school after tearing the ACL in his right knee. Instead of playing a full senior season of high school basketball, Johnson graduated early, joined the Buckeyes in mid-December and played in nearly 100 minutes as a first-year reserve player.

Johnson said his last game-winning shot came during his sophomore season, pre-injury.

“I was just thinking, get a score for the team,” he said. “Coach called a play, seemed like it was for me. It was a gutsy shot. It went in and teammates had confidence in me and the coaches did. It was a great moment.”

There’s not much argument against that. On the broadcast, legendary broadcaster Bill Raftery yelled out, “Big-time onions!” as the cameras cut to Johnson being mobbed by his teammates.

The scene was in pretty stark contrast to Ohio State’s last game, a 71-65 loss at Xavier during which the Buckeyes never held a lead. Against a Seton Hall team that had just won at No. 4 Michigan, the Buckeyes took the lead at 26-24 with 7:28 left in the first half and never trailed for the duration even as Seton Hall battled back in the closing minutes.

Johnson had 14 points in the loss to the Musketeers. Monday night, he finished with 8 points on 2-of-5 shooting with two assists and two turnovers in 26 minutes of playing time. He also established himself as one player Holtmann said he wanted the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

“He’s gutsy,” Holtmann said. “He’s not afraid of the moment. You’re always looking for that (from) guys late.”

Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard was equally complementary of Johnson.

“He’s a really, really good player,” he said. “Watch him on film, you see he’s a really, really good player. He plays with a high level. He can shoot the basketball. He’s really good going to his right. He’s good. He’s gonna be really good.”

Monday night, when it mattered most, he was.

Buckeyes basketball:Ohio State assistant Tony Skinn to face former team Seton Hall

Ohio State, Seton Hall endure late twists and turns

Johnson’s 3-pointer capped a frenetic final minute filled with drama. Ohio State led 75-72 with 2:08 to play, but it was down to 76-74 with 1:27 to play when the Buckeyes got the ball to leading scorer E.J. Liddell on the right wing. His attempted bank shot didn’t fall, and Seton Hall brought the ball past midcourt and called timeout with exactly 50 seconds left and 22 on the shot clock.

It was clear who would likely get the ball: starting forward Jared Rhoden had matched Liddell point-for-point and had a game-high 29 along with a chance to win the game. But when the Pirates inbounded the ball, Rhoden’s bright pink shoes clearly crossed the midcourt line for a turnover that gave the Buckeyes the ball back.

Johnson was guarding Rhoden at the moment, and he appeared to be yelling for the official to notice Rhoden’s feet.

“I just wanted a stop,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if the ref was paying attention. I think he was just watching me and I was like, ‘Yo, he’s backcourt.’ He was backcourt before that, soon as he caught it. I was happy he caught it when he did.”

The knockout blow was still to come, though. With a 17-second difference between the game and shot clocks, Liddell took a 3-pointer to ice the game that didn’t fall. He chased down the rebound, though, and tried to find Johnson with a pass that resulted in the turnover and a straight-line bucket at the other end to tie the game.

“That was a lot in the last couple seconds,” Liddell said, nudging Johnson with his right arm as he spoke. “I just felt like we kept fighting. My guy here hit a big shot. He stepped up big in those moments. Since high school, he’s always done that.”

Did Ohio State consider fouling in the final two seconds?

Holtmann’s first question in the press conference came from a familiar, and legendary, voice. Former Ohio State player and CBS analyst Clark Kellogg wanted to know if he had considered fouling Seton Hall after Johnson’s 3-pointer. The Pirates had called timeout with 2.3 seconds left, drawn up a play and then headed back to their bench when Ohio State also called a timeout.

When the game concluded, Tyrese Samuel’s desperation, off-balance shot didn’t fall, and the Buckeyes could finally exhale.

“We said we wanted to be really tough on the catch and physical because it was a turn and catch and shoot,” Holtmann said. “We were not gonna foul. We had practiced that, not fouling, and we wanted to give two looks because we knew we had a timeout. Obviously it’s hard to get a clean look at that situation. The defense is at an advantage. We talked about make it really difficult on the catch and if you foul we’re OK with that.”

Justin Ahrens, Jimmy Sotos come up big for Buckeyes

Five games into his third season, Liddell is proving that he’s a given to produce big numbers for the Buckeyes. So aside from the first-team all-Big Ten selection from a season ago, who did Williard especially prepare for when going over the Ohio State film?

“We were trying to take away Justin Ahrens but we didn’t do a very good job of it,” he said. “Liddell’s such a good player and plays at such a high level he’s gonna get his. You just can’t let one of those guards get (going). He was a difference-maker. We’ve been defending the 3 great and tonight we had just too many breakdowns.”

Entering the game, Seton Hall had only allowed its opponents to shoot 13.3% (8 for 60) from 3-point range. Ohio State collectively went 11 for 22 (50.0%), led by senior captain Ahrens’ 5-for-8 effort.

Through four games, Ahrens had scored 27 total points and was 7 for 15 from 3. Monday night was a different story, and Holtmann said he challenged Ahrens after he missed his only two field goal attempts and finished with three points in 16 minutes against Xavier.

“I think Justin Ahrens was critical,” Holtmann said. “I was really hard on Justin after the last game. I didn’t feel like as a senior he gave us enough. He came out today with a look in his eye that he needs to have consistently and I was really proud of him.”

Sotos, meanwhile, did not come off the bench against the Musketeers and had totaled only 17 minutes of playing time in wins against Niagara and Bowling Green. Against the Pirates, Sotos played 19 minutes and scored more points (6) than he had in those two appearances (5) combined.

He had two rebounds, an assist, a block and a turnover while going 2 for 2 from the floor and 1 for 2 from the line.

“I thought Jimmy was great,” Holtmann said. “He really stabilized us, allowed us to handle their pressure better. I thought Jimmy was phenomenal. He’s got to be that for us. I’m kicking myself a little bit. I should’ve used him more the other night (against Xavier).”

Chris Holtmann beats Kevin Willard again

Since taking over at Butler, Chris Holtmann is now 6-1 against Willard. Holtmann was 5-1 with the Bulldogs, and he partially didn’t call timeout before Johnson’s game-winner because of his past experiences against the Pirates.

“Kevin does a tremendous job making it difficult for you because they can change a defense and they’re good going from one defense to another defense right in the same possession,” he said. “Maybe my experience of coaching against him helped in this particular situation. We wanted our players to play with freedom and players win games.”

Ohio State wins after falling out of top 25

Six hours before the opening tip, the Buckeyes saw their streak of appearances in the Associated Press top 25 poll end at 25. The Buckeyes opened the day No. 19 but, after the Xavier loss, fell into the category of teams receiving votes.

Ohio State avoided its first losing streak in non-conference play since Holtmann’s first season. After a 67-66 overtime loss to Butler in the PK80 Invitational in Portland on Nov. 26, 2017, the Buckeyes returned home and dropped a 79-65 game to Clemson in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

The Buckeyes are now 4-2 all-time against Seton Hall. The last meeting between the teams was a 75-59 Pirates home win Dec. 20, 2003.

Quotable

“It’s a little bit harder for him to get to some of his spots when you’re playing him with Zed or Joey, but I thought he moved around, he was aggressive, he attacked late, got to his spots late, got to the foul line. He has played like a guy who’s earned the right to play really well. He’s in the best shape of his life. He’s been our hardest, most consistent worker.” – Holtmann, on Liddell and his play alongside Kyle Young

“I don’t look at it like this. I look at it as me doing my part to help the team win. I feel like me stepping up in those moments and making plays for the team is going to help us win. That’s what I look forward to. I didn’t even know I had 28. I could’ve had 30 if I had made that midrange. I just went out there and did that thing.” – Liddell, asked about carrying the team with his 28 points

“I thought we made it hard for Liddell to get the ball deep on the block. When they made their run, he was catching it deep and when he catches it deep, man, that dude’s getting a bucket. I thought we did a better job of just being more aggressive with the passing lanes, making other guys try to score.” – Willard, on his team’s second-half run.

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@AdamJardy