Sweet turns sour: Ohio State rallies late, but Villanova denies Sweet 16 bid

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

PITTSBURGH – Malaki Branham’s shot had just been soundly rejected by Eric Dixon. Ohio State prepared to inbound the ball, and one single piece of confetti from somewhere high above the floor at PPG Paints Arena fluttered its way to the court.

It was white, the color of Villanova’s jerseys. And it was the only confetti the Buckeyes would see this season. With a shot at a Sweet 16berth and showdown with rival Michigan in San Antonio, No. 7 seed Ohio State (20-12) bowed out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the hands of No. 2 seed Villanova (28-7).

The final: Wildcats 71, Buckeyes 61. But Ohio State didn't go down without a fight.

Down 11 points at the half, Ohio State let that climb to 15 points and was trailing 46-31 when Jamari Wheeler stole the ball from Collin Gillespie and Branham converted at the other end. It didn’t seem like much in the moment, but it finally got the Buckeyes going.

When Zed Key tipped in his own miss with 12:22 remaining, it pulled the Buckeyes within 55-43 and gave them buckets on six straight possessions. After a turnover, they would convert on four of their next five, the latter of which was a banged-in jumper from Branham that cut Villanova’s lead to 57-53 with 7:51 to play.

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It was a costly run, though: Kyle Young, who returned for Friday’s first-round win against Loyola Chicago after missing the final three games of the season with his third concussion in a little more than a year, took a blow to the head and had to leave after being evaluated by the training staff. He exited with 8:55 left, and Villanova ahead 57-51.

"He’s being evaluated now," coach Chris Holtmann said immediately after the game. "More than anything he’s disappointed about the loss."

The Buckeyes forged on without him, and when Jamari Wheeler sunk a 3-pointer at the 5:39 mark they were within two points, 60-58, and the crowd was roaring. To that point, it was a 25-12 run for the Buckeyes.

At the final media timeout, E.J. Liddell went to the line for one-and-one free throws with 3:38 remaining and the Villanova lead at 64-59. He missed the front end, but the defense forced a 3-point miss.

Then Liddell turned it over on a drive, but the defense forced another 3-point miss. Then Branham's 3-pointer rimmed out, and an Eric Dixon 3-pointer made it an 8-point deficit with 1:38 to play and it was too much.

Dixon entered the game having taken 29 3-pointers all season and made both of his attempts against the Buckeyes.

Young finished with 6 points and six rebounds in 28 minutes in the final game of his Ohio State career.

Branham led the Buckeyes with 23 points. Liddell had 17. Both could be in the NBA next season, and Liddell has already acknowledged that he plans to professionalize. 

"I’m really hurting inside," Liddell said when asked about his future. "I wish I could’ve done more to get it done. This group of guys was really determined. We fought through a lot … I gave it my all this year. I wish I could’ve done a little more though."

"We really respect Ohio State and what a tough, intelligent team they are," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Liddell is a beast and Branham is a handful."

Villanova got going behind fifth-year guard Collin Gillespie. With the Wildcats leading 7-3, second-year guard Meechie Johnson replaced fifth-year guard Wheeler and Gillespie immediately started to go to work. On the next possession, the 6-3, 195-pound Gillespie backed down the 6-2, 172-pound Johnson, drew a foul and hit both free throws. After Johnson heaved in a deep 3-pointer from the March Madness logo with the shot clock buzzing, Gillespie answered with a 3 of his own.

Then, he stole a Branham pass and scored on a layup. Then Gillespie capped a personal 10-0 run with a 3-pointer, forcing Ohio State to call timeout with 12:21 remaining and the Villanova lead up to 17-7. Wheeler returned to the lineup and Gillespie’s production slowed, but the Wildcats continued to keep the Buckeyes at bay. Once Wheeler returned, Ohio State scored on three straight possessions but only pulled two points closer.

Down 37-25 after a pair of Gillespie free throws with 1:38 left, E.J. Liddell banked in a 3-pointer while appealing to the referee that he was fouled in the process. He didn’t earn a whistle, and after Villanova called timeout with 10.7 seconds the Buckeyes forced an Eric Dixon miss in the paint and heard the final horn sound a split-second after one final whistle. Gene Brown III was called for a foul on the rebound attempt, and after 1.4 seconds were put back on the court Caleb Daniels hit both side of the one-and-one free throws to send Ohio State into the half trailing 39-28.

The 39 points allowed were two shy of the total the Buckeyes held No. 10 seed Loyola Chicago to during Friday’s first-round win. Liddell (12 points) and Branham (8) carried the primary load for the Buckeyes.

Gillespie led the Wildcats with 20 points and was perfect on eight free-throw attempts.


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