Buckeyes turn to defense in grinder of a win against Penn State

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

When Ohio State has an offensive game like it did Sunday against Penn State, it usually adds up to a loss.

The Nittany Lions brought a defense holding teams to 62.8 points per game since emerging from a 22-day COVID-19 pause that directly overlapped with Ohio State’s to Value City Arena, and those abilities helped keep the Buckeyes from establishing any sort of significant offensive flow.

It was not enough to pull off the upset, and the credit to that goes to the Ohio State defense. Despite being held to a season-low 44 shots and 61 points, the Buckeyes won a game in a fashion not often seen during coach Chris Holtmann’s five seasons. In a game with limited possessions, Ohio State finished with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 98.6 (projected points for 100 possessions).

With the win, the Buckeyes are now 5-34 (.128) when having an offensive efficiency rating at that mark or lower. It’s typically a death knell for Ohio State, but on this afternoon, the Buckeyes countered with what coach Chris Holtmann called their best defensive effort since Christmas.

You can go back further than that, too: it was the best since a Dec. 11 win against Wisconsin.

“We just have to continue to be better on that end and continue to grow in our efficiency offensively,” Holtmann said. “We weren’t super efficient offensively today. We didn’t make a ton of shots, but we got to the line at a really high level, which was good to see.”

Overall, this was Ohio State’s third-best best defensive efficiency performance this season. The 56 points allowed are the second-fewest for an Ohio State opponent this season, one point better than Wisconsin’s 55-point effort in early December. Since coming back from the layoff, Ohio State had gone 2-2 while allowing three of its four opponents to have offensive efficiency ratings of 108.5 or better.

Of all the things that the Buckeyes have tried to regain since their return, it’s been a commitment to that end of the court that Holtmann singled out atop the list.

“We lost a little momentum,” Holtmann said. “This group has to continue to recommit on that end, because we can’t overwhelm you with defensive ability across the board. At times our offense can be really, really good, but we can’t overwhelm you.”

The opening minutes against Penn State portended a different outcome. The Nittany Lions were out to a 10-4 lead when E.J. Liddell drew a foul to send the game into the under-16 media timeout. With 15:58 to play in the half, Holtmann delivered a simple message to his players: the intensity has to be better at that end, or this will be a long afternoon.

Three possessions later, Ohio State forced the first of three Penn State shock violations. Open looks started to dry up and, although the pace of the game remained sluggish at best, the Buckeyes started to exert some will on the defensive end of the court.

“Coach was saying, ‘Lock back in. Get stops. Don’t take that lead for granted,’ ” Ohio State graduate guard Jamari Wheeler said of the message in that first timeout. “That’s the type of team that’s never going to go away. They’re going to give up runs, but they’re going to keep fighting back and get back in the game.”

It helped that Ohio State took control of the glass. Penn State had five offensive rebounds at halftime and finished with seven as Ohio State finished with a 37-30 rebounding advantage and limited the Nittany Lions to eight second-chance points.

In the first meeting between these teams, Penn State shot 52.9% (18 for 34) from two-point range, the highest mark allowed by the Buckeyes this season. In the rematch, Penn State was 15 for 31 (48.4%), the ninth-highest mark Ohio State has allowed.

But it also showed that, in a game where the Buckeyes took a season-low 12 3-point attempts and tied another low with only three makes, the defense could help carry the day.

“We’ve had some really poor (defensive games),” Holtmann said. “I think we’ll get back to making shots. The biggest thing we’ve got to be able to do is grow in our defensive effort and I thought this was a good step.”

Justin Ahrens, Buckeyes have season-low 3-point effort

The recent struggles of Justin Ahrens have been well-documented, but Ohio State collectively suffered through a second straight light-shooting night from deep in the win.

At Wisconsin on Thursday, the Buckeyes went 3 for 19 (15.8%) from deep. Sunday, they attempted a season-low 12 shots from deep and tied Thursday’s season low with three makes. Ahrens, in 28:08, was 1-for-4 to move him to 5 for 24 (20.8%).

“Justin’s got to find some in transition,” Holtmann said. “He’s just got to stay ready to shoot. He’s missed some good ones. He gets a lot of attention in this league. I’ve got no issue with how he played today.”

Transition opportunities were essentially nil in this game. Ohio State had two fast-break points; Penn State had none.

Collectively, Ohio State is 6 for 31 (19.4%) from 3 in it last two games.

“Just stay confident,” Wheeler said. “Coach has been yelling at us find the line. A bunch of shots we’ve been missing, we’ve been shooting really deep. Get up on the line. Our percentage is way better when we’re closer to the 3-point line. Stay confident. We know it’s going to fall. We’re going to have some nights where shots are not going to fall, and that’s when we rely on our defense.”

Ahrens had made three 3-pointers in three straight games against Penn State. He finished with seven rebounds, tying a career high.

Gene Brown III makes impact off bench

He’s primarily been relied upon for his defensive capabilities, but second-year guard Gene Brown III gave the Buckeyes an offensive spark during the second half.

With Penn State within 38-33 and the midpoint of the half approaching, Brown made his first field goal since the Jan. 2 game at Nebraska to push the lead back to seven points. Two possessions later, Brown faked a 3-pointer from the left wing, drove the basket and slammed home a dunk.

It gave Ohio State a 44-34 lead and led to a Penn State timeout with 8:54 to play. He finished with six points, adding a pair of free throws along the way, in 17:51.

“I stay the course,” Brown said of waiting for a chance to make an impact. “I try to make an impact any way I can. When I first came in I gave some defensive pop, gave us a little bit of life guarding their best player, trying to limit their offensive flow and get our offensive flow going. I try to go in and help any way I can. Bring energy.”

“I thought he made two big free throws,” Holtmann said. “He had a nice attack of the close-out. He’s got to be a high-level, high-detailed defender. I was really happy for Gene. I thought he gave quality minutes today. We need that from him. He can really rebound it at his position. He’s important for us.”

Free throws help Buckeyes hold off Nittany Lions

No team had attempted more than 23 free throws or made more than 16 against Penn State through the first 14 games of the season.

Sunday, Ohio State shattered both of those marks by going 24 for 36 (66.7%) from the line. In a game with so few possessions, Ohio State’s free-throw rate was its highest since a Nov. 12, 2013 home win against Ohio.

“Some of them, we weren’t as disciplined as we usually are,” Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “We went for some steals where we put ourselves out of position and fouled. We don’t foul. We’re usually pretty disciplined. We don’t send people to the line.”

Had they connected at a higher rate, the Buckeyes would’ve been able to create more separation. E.J. Liddell led the way with 12 attempts but only hit six of them. Freshman Malaki Branham, who was 1-for-7 from the field, was 5-for-8 from the line.

E.J. Liddell fills out the stat sheet

Third-year forward E.J. Liddell led all scorers with 19 points, but he filled out the box score elsewhere. His eight rebounds were tied for a team high, his three assists led the Buckeyes and he added two blocks in 33:03.

Perhaps most impressive: Liddell drew 10 Penn State fouls and committed zero.