Zed Key, Ohio State Buckeyes show better poise in second-half blowout against Minnesota

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

The conversation took place during a first half where little went right for Ohio State’s offense.

On the way to a 24-23 halftime deficit Tuesday night at Value City Arena, sophomore center Zed Key had established position deep in the post against Minnesota’s frontline. He took the pass, quickly spun and fired up an out-of-control right-handed hook shot that had no chance of going in. A moment later, it had earned Key a quick hook and a lengthy sideline conversation with coach Chris Holtmann.

The message from the coach was pretty straightforward.

“We’ve just been on him about slowing down and playing with more balance in the post,” Holtmann said. “He just rushes it too much. He’s got to settle the ball. He’s got to read the defense and play on balance.”

Key was far from the only offensive issue for the Buckeyes during the first half, and he was a key component in a decidedly different second half. After scoring two points during the first half, Key had seven in the second and added five rebounds, two steals, one assist, two fouls drawn and no fouls committed in 13:41 as Ohio State (16-6, 9-4 Big Ten) romped to a 70-45 win against the Golden Gophers (12-11, 3-11).

As the Buckeyes got going early after halftime, Key was front and center. Tied at 27, he scored on a right-handed hook shot to give Ohio State a lead it would never relinquish. On the next possession, he found himself matched up with high-scoring forward Jamison Battle on the perimeter, stood his ground and forced a shot-clock violation.

Then he connected on a left-handed hook shot, but not before pumping his fist and receiving a high-five from Holtmann as he headed back down the court.

It was an appreciated moment of joy for Key, who has had some recent struggles during his first season as a starter. He had four points last time out at Michigan in a matchup with Hunter Dickinson, one game after he had 10 points on 12 shots in a loss at Rutgers.

Holtmann has challenged Key to bring more consistent production, but not necessarily on offense.

Buckeyes basketball:After fellow Buckeyes came to his aid, Zed Key emerges as Ohio State's 'Mr. Fix-It'

“Speaking with the coaching staff, you have to get better on defense,” he said. “You’re the anchor on the back line. Ball screens and rolling, they said you have to be better. Teams are scoring too easy in the paint.”

Tuesday night, the Gophers didn’t do that. Minnesota’s 45 points are the fewest allowed by the Buckeyes in a Big Ten game since Illinois had 39 exactly eight years prior to this game. Ohio State held Minnesota to an adjusted defensive efficiency margin of 70.9, its second-best performance of the year and best in league play according to KenPom.com. The Golden Gophers finished with an effective field goal percentage of 35.6%, the lowest for an Ohio State opponent this year.

After bottoming out in the sub-100s, Ohio State is now No. 77 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

It took a lot more than Key’s defensive stop, and Holtmann declined to profess a belief that his team’s defense has definitely turned a corner. But on this night, when the offense took some time to get going, the defense held up its end of the bargain.

And when it got going, Key was smack-dab in the middle of it.

“In general for Zed and his growth, he’s got to slow down in traffic,” Holtmann said. “He can score over bigger guys. He’s done it his whole career, but he can’t do it when he’s rushing things. That was my whole conversation with him and sometimes you’ve got to pull a guy aside. I just wanted him to slow down because he’s really effective when he slows down.”

Chris Holtmann doesn’t auto-bench for two fouls

For a third straight game, Penn State graduate guard Jamari Wheeler found himself saddled with a second first-half foul. This time, his first one came only 65 seconds into the game and his second with 17:40 remaining.

He came out of the game at that point, but Holtmann had a message for him.

“Coach told me to stay in it, first half you’re going back in,” Wheeler said.

He returned with 11:01 remaining and Ohio State leading 12-10. He would finish with 23:13 of playing time, 13 points, three assists and four fouls.

“I don’t believe in benching guys with two fouls,” Holtmann said. “I never have. It’s burnt me a few times, but I do not believe in benching guys with two fouls in the first half. It’s burned me a few times.”

Wheeler then helped Ohio State get out to a fast second-half start, hitting a 3-pointer as the opening possession of the half wound down. He drilled his shot with three seconds left on the shot clock and would finish with 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting from 3-point range during the second half.

“That was critical,” Holtmann said of the first 3-pointer. “It was a late clock. We were trying to get the ball inside. He’s a really capable shooter with time and space. Might take him a minute, but he’s very capable. We want him to shoot those and be ready to shoot them.”

In Saturday’s win at Michigan, Wheeler picked up his second foul with 7:42 left in the first half. At Rutgers the previous time out, his second foul came with 15:11 to play.

“He’s got to manage that aggressiveness with a little bit smarter plays,” Holtmann said. “The second foul (against Minnesota) wasn’t smart. He’s got to balance that. He’s got to take some chances, because that’s who he is and I don’t want to prevent him from doing that. We’ve tried to stress being a little more solid in areas off the ball.”

Roles for Gene Brown, Cedric Russell grow

With Meechie Johnson Jr. unavailable for a second straight game due to an ankle sprain, Gene Brown made his second career start and finished with 4 points, four rebounds and one assist in 28:04. Louisiana graduate transfer Cedric Russell played 22:39, finishing with 9 points.

Senior Justin Ahrens came off the bench for 11:28 and went 1 for 4 from 3-point range.

“Some of Justin’s minutes have been given to those guys for sure,” Holtmann said of Brown and Russell. “That’s a pretty fluid thing as well. Both of those guys have played really well here lately.”

Ohio State basketball:As Justin Ahrens searches for shot, Gene Brown, Cedric Russell stepping up for Buckeyes

Ahrens will remain in the rotation, Holtmann said, even as his playing time has grown shorter.

“Justin will get continued consistent minutes,” he said. “He’s in our rotation. I don’t see that changing where he’s not going to be in our rotation because he adds too much value to our team in other ways than just shooting. I think that he’ll continue to stay in the rotation as long as he continues to approach it the right way. I just think he will in our 8-9 man rotation.”

Should Johnson return for Saturday’s home game with Iowa, it will force even more difficult decisions.

Milestone watch

When Russell nailed a 3-pointer with 2:56 to play, it gave the Louisiana graduate transfer guard 9 points on the night and pushed the Ohio State lead to 65-43. It also moved Russell past 1,500 career points, where he now sits at 1,501.

In four years at Louisiana, Russell scored 1,409 points before transferring to Ohio State during the summer. He has 92 points this season for Ohio State, 53 of which have come in the last seven games (7.6 points per game).

Liddell, meanwhile, moved his career scoring total to 1,115 points and climbed to No. 46 on the all-time scoring list at Ohio State. He now sits five points behind Curtis Wilson at 1,120 points.

Ohio State reclaiming advantage in Minnesota series

The last time these teams met at Value City Arena, Marcus Carr hit a 3-pointer with three seconds left to give the Gophers a 62-59 win and their first win here in 15 years. Prior to that Jan. 23, 2020 loss, Ohio State had won eight straight home games against Minnesota.

The Golden Gophers have not won consecutive road games against the Buckeyes since they did so Jan. 20, 1996 and Jan. 18, 1997.

Ohio State has now won three straight against Minnesota and has swept the season series.

Quotable

“God has gifted him with the ability to score the ball. He can roll out of bed and score the ball, and that’s a great gift.” – Holtmann, on Liddell

“He should be the player of the year, definitely. He plays on both ends too. He shot block for us too. A lot of big-time players don’t do that. They usually focus on one end. He do it on both, and he buying in on the defensive end. Definitely got my vote for player of the year, for sure.” – Wheeler, on Liddell

“I tell Jamari all the time, when I pass you the ball, please shoot the ball. He still doesn’t shoot it when I pass him the ball. Check out my assist numbers. Every time I pass out the ball, be confident.” – Key

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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