After challenge from Chris Holtmann, Justin Ahrens shoots Ohio State past Seton Hall

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State Buckeyes forward Justin Ahrens (10) points to the crowd before the OSU mens basketball game against Niagara in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

FORT MYERS, Fla. – There was plenty of criticism to go around after Ohio State’s first loss of the season. In their first true road game against Xavier since 1934, the Buckeyes fell behind on the opening possession, never led and generally let the Musketeers dictate the tempo and physicality of the game last Thursday.

That wasn’t on just one person for Ohio State. But as he addressed the loss with his team, coach Chris Holtmann saved some pointed comments for senior captain Justin Ahrens, who missed his only two attempts from the floor in a season-low 16 minutes. The message was pretty direct: for the Buckeyes to be successful this season, they will need more from him.

Monday night against No. 21 Seton Hall inside Suncoast Credit Union Arena in the first on-site game of the Fort Myers Tip-Off, he followed through with his most impactful performance of the season. Ahrens scored a season-high 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range, connected on the first possession of the game and hunted his shot as aggressively as he has so far this year in a 79-76 win.

“It feels good, especially when the shots are falling like they were (Monday) night,” he said. “As a shooter, when you see one go through that early in the game it’s usually going to be a good game. You get a good feel for it, especially for me. I remember telling Jamari after I hit the first one: ‘Yo, find me, because it’s coming off smooth right now.’ ”

Buckeyes basketball:Jimmy Sotos relishes chance to shine for Ohio State against Seton Hall

At the half, the only 3-pointer Ahrens hadn’t made came on one where he was fouled. He hit all three of his attempts and made two of three free throws to give the Buckeyes 11 points. After the Buckeyes had come out sluggish at Xavier, his early shooting helped set a tone for how the game would go.

“I think Justin Ahrens was critical,” Holtmann said after the win. “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.”

Ahrens was a player Seton Hall coach Kevin Williard said his scouting report had highlighted aside from E.J. Liddell, who had a team-high 28 points.

“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.”

Against Xavier, Ahrens said defenders were sticking with him and not letting him think about taking too many shots. He doesn’t enter a game with a set or ideal number of shots in mind, Ahrens said, instead focusing on trying to be impactful across the board and knock down shots when the opportunity is there.

Entering Wednesday night’s game against No. 23 Florida, Ahrens is 12 for 23 (52.2%) from 3.

“When I’m open, for me I’ve got to get my eyes on the rim and snap it off,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had the coaches tell me I’ve taken a bad shot. For me, it’s staying aggressive. If the other team is slacking off and not paying attention or they lose me for a second because I move well off the ball, I’ve got to be ready to fire it off. Any time I’m open, I’ve got to let it go.”

Buckeyes draw rematch with nemesis Florida

Ohio State and Florida have played each other four times since they played for it all at the end of the 2006-07 season. The Buckeyes have won three straight regular-season games against the Gators since Florida’s 84-75 win in the 2007 national championship game, a streak sandwiched in between a 74-66 loss that ended Ohio State’s 2015-16 season in the second round of the NIT. That loss would be the final postseason game of Ohio State coach Thad Matta’s tenure.

From Versailles, Ohio, Ahrens said he remembers watching that national title game but is a little fuzzy on the details. He was 7 years old at the time.

“I was at one of my friends’ houses watching it and I was heartbroken when Ohio State lost,” he said. “That was a good game, obviously. Looking for a rematch (Wednesday) and we’re gonna get it back. I don’t remember a lot of moments from the game because I was younger. I honestly just remember seeing it on TV and that was such a highly anticipated game. Everybody was talking about it.”

Fifth-year guard Jimmy Sotos, a native of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, was 8 at the time.

“I don’t remember that too well,” he said. “I’m excited for another opportunity to play basketball. Not too many times you get to compete for a championship too. We’re definitely not gonna take that for granted. Florida’s a big, athletic team but we’ve got a lot of confidence in what we can do and when we’re clicking we’re the best team in the country and we’re excited to go show that (Wednesday).”

Jimmy Sotos, Buckeyes fill in for Gene Brown III

Ohio State will play both games in Fort Myers without second-year guard Gene Brown III, who hit his head on the court while grabbing an offensive rebound at Xavier and is in concussion protocol. He is hopeful to return in time for Tuesday’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge home game against Duke.

Without him in the lineup, Sotos played a season-high 18 minutes after not getting off the bench against Xavier. They aren’t like-for-like players, but he helped fill some of the minutes Brown (11.8 minutes per game) had been logging.

“Me and Gene do completely different things for this team,” Sotos said. “I’m not gonna go in there and crash the offensive glass like Gene does. We’re definitely missing that and his energy on defense, the way he gets in passing lanes and keeps possessions alive for us. We’re definitely missing that and can’t wait to get him back, but my job when I get on the court is to do what I do at a high level and that’s running the team, connecting the team, making sure we get a great shot every time and knocking down open shots and making plays for my teammates.”

“He’s a guy who’s extremely versatile, which is something that’s very much needed at the college level,” Ahrens said of Brown. “He can defend multiple positions. He’s a big guy. He’s got a big wingspan. Just his presence, even he’s not guarding the ball, being off the ball in the gaps, it’s big for our team. It sucks missing him, but it’s the next man up and we’ve got to continue to try to win without him but we’re looking forward to getting him back for sure.”

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