As Justin Ahrens searches for shot, Gene Brown, Cedric Russell stepping up for Buckeyes

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Ohio State trailed by 15 points when Cedric Russell checked into the game. The Buckeyes, in digging a 20-point hole at Purdue, had scratched out 45 points through the first 31 minutes and were in need of a spark.

So Russell scored on a drive, banking in a runner from straight-on inside the paint. Then he followed it with a deep jumper. Two possessions later, it was a 3-pointer, and the Buckeyes called timeout with 7:05 to play and the deficit at 63-52. Russell had lit the fuse that, while it wouldn’t lead to an Ohio State win, allowed the Buckeyes to push the Boilermakers to the brink in Sunday’s a 81-78 loss.

During his past three games, Cedric Russell has averaged 9.7 points per game while playing his way into a greater offensive role.

Russell finished with 9 points on 4-of-8 shooting in 13:43 as one of two bright spots off the bench. His scoring matched second-year guard Gene Brown III, who played a Big Ten career-high 20:04 and added nine points.

Neither took top billing for the Buckeyes, but both were instrumental in helping Ohio State take Purdue to the wire inside a sold-out Mackey Arena to continue a strong run of recent play.

“They’ve been good during this stretch of games,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “Those guys have been pretty consistent and pretty good. Hopefully they can continue to build off it and give us a great lift.”

A late addition after Duane Washington Jr. opted to stay in the NBA draft, Russell transferred from Louisiana but wasn’t able to join his new team until the fall once he received his degree. He entered the preseason buried on the depth chart, but Holtmann and assistant coach Tony Skinn, his primary recruiter, preached patience and the belief that Russell would eventually acclimate to high-major competition.

In his past four games, Eugene Brown III is averaging 7.3 points while also emerging as a key defensive weapon for the Buckeyes.

That looks to be what is happening now. A prolific scorer for the Ragin’ Cajuns, Russell had 39 points in the first 13 games, 12 of which came in the win against No. 1 Duke on Nov. 30. Entering a Jan. 18 game against IUPUI, Russell was averaging 3.0 points per game.

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During his past three games, Russell has scored 29 points (9.7 per game) while playing his way into a greater offensive role that has seen him occasionally handle the ball.

Brown, too, has used this recent stretch to put together a case for more playing time. The second-year guard who missed four games with a concussion in late November was averaging 1.9 points through his first 10 games entering a Jan. 16 home game with Penn State.

Ohio State's Cedric Russell (2) and Eugene Brown III battle Minnesota's Abdoulaye Thiam for the ball Sunday.

Now in his past four games, Brown is averaging 7.3 points while also emerging as a key defensive weapon for the Buckeyes. Although Jaden Ivey hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left Sunday, he did it while falling into his own bench as Brown applied pressure.

“(Sunday), he was as good offensively as I’ve seen him,” Holtmann said Monday on his radio show. “Made good passes, created some extra possession on the offensive glass. I think his confidence is growing. He’s taking good shots. It’s been good to see what he’s done. I’m really happy for him.”

Neither player is being counted on to assume a go-to role. That could change for Brown next year, but both have helped fill the production lost as senior Justin Ahrens’ shooting slump continues. Ahrens came off the bench at Purdue, ending a stretch of 22 straight starts, and played a season-low 11 minutes. After averaging 9.1 points through the first nine games of the season, Ahrens has hit more than one 3-pointer in just one of the past nine games while averaging 3.7 points and shooting 21.4% (9 for 42) from 3.

In his past four games, Eugene Brown III is averaging 7.3 points while also emerging as a key defensive weapon for the Buckeyes.

As his production has waned, Purdue was another game where Russell and Brown stepped up.

“I thought Gene and Cedric were fantastic,” Holtmann said. “Certainly some guys need to play better. We need to help them as coaches play better, but those guys gave us great lift.”