BASKETBALL

Brice Sensabaugh carries scoring load, Ohio State pulls away in second half against Eastern Illinois

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

Brice Sensabaugh had a pretty simple explanation for what had been a challenging offensive performance from Ohio State on Wednesday night.

A minute and a half into the second half against an overmatched Eastern Illinois team, the Buckeyes had seen their 16-point lead winnowed down to three thanks to an offense that couldn’t find any consistent traction. Ohio State led 26-23 and had scored 13 of those points in a span of 4:01 sandwiched around the midpoint of the first half. Otherwise, the Buckeyes had 13 points in roughly 18 minutes of game action as the Panthers’ plan to pack the paint and force their hosts to connect from outside appeared to be working.

By the end, it was a 65-43 win that moved the Buckeyes to 3-0 as they now set their sights on the Maui Invitational. It also marked their worst-shooting effort in the early going and the first time the Buckeyes didn’t make at least half their shots.

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While there was the customary tipping of the cap to the Panthers, Sensabaugh said the offensive struggles on this night weren’t too much to worry about.

“I think we played well,” the freshman, who led all scorers with 20 points, said. “I just think we got open-shot opportunities that we didn’t execute. We didn’t hit shots like we were supposed to. That’s something you don’t take too serious. Obviously we’re going to hit shots later on down the line as the season goes on. We were good offensively. We could’ve crashed the boards harder.

“There’s obviously things we could’ve done better but not hitting open shots isn’t something that you take too seriously.”

The second half shot chart looks decidedly different than its first-half counterpart. At the half, Ohio State led 26-20 and had taken 18 of its 29 shots (62.1%) from 3-point range. Inside the arc, the Buckeyes were 3 for 11 (27.3%) and had hit six 3s (33.3%) to shoot 31.0% overall.

Ohio State attempted 38 second-half shot and made half of them. Ten of those 28 (35.7%) were from 3, and only two of them went in (20.0%). Instead, the Buckeyes made an emphasis on getting into the paint and to the rim and went 12 for 18 (66.7%) from two-point range.

While the perimeter shots weren’t falling, the Buckeyes turned up their scoring by attacking the rim and not settling.

“It was obviously a big emphasis,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said of driving the ball in the second half. “I think just in general, playing with more pace, more cutting, more movement and playing through the paint, we needed to do that. We did not do a good job of that in the first half. Obviously we didn’t get them ready to attack at that level so I’ll take responsibility for that. But really good job in the second half.”

It allowed the Buckeyes to take control in the opening minutes and steadily pull away. Ohio State outscored Eastern Illinois 26-20 in the first half and 39-23 in the second.

“At halftime, coach just told us to breathe for a second,” Oklahoma State graduate transfer Isaac Likekele said. “He just told us to breathe and he told us to pick up our energy and intensity. Then whenever we did that and we went out there, I think we looked more cohesive out there. I believe that’s the correct word, cohesive. We played correctly. He told us we only had five to six shots at the rim in the first half. In the second half we had about 25-plus.

“That lets you know that we picked up our intensity getting to the rim and our aggressiveness.”

It was what Ohio State needed on a night where it looked like it might already have one eye glancing westward. After opening with buy games against Robert Morris, Charleston Southern and now Eastern Illinois, the Buckeyes will depart Friday for their first appearance in the Maui Invitational in 19 years. A date with No. 17 San Diego State looms as Monday’s tournament opener, and it’s a team that clearly has Ohio State’s attention.

Was it prematurely occupying the mindset of the Buckeyes?

“It’s possible,” Holtmann said. “You’d have to ask them that. I think we always need to have a healthy respect for who we play.”

Regardless, Eastern Illinois proved to be Ohio State’s biggest hurdle through the first three games of the season. Although it came against a team ranked No. 355 nationally according to KenPom.com, it did provide the Buckeyes with an opportunity to see how it would handle in-game adversity for the first time.

“Running into adversity is definitely important for any team,” Sensabaugh said. “It helps you grow and helps you realize and self-reflect at halftime and after the game like we do as a team. Obviously we’ll run into adversity. Nothing’s perfect. Building off of what we know and what we’re learning is going to be important for us.”

And it will all be a lot tougher in Hawai’i in five days.

Veteran starters Justice Sueing, Sean McNeil struggle

In the first two games, Ohio State’s starting lineup has been prolific, posting a team-best plus-30 plus-minus rating while logging the most minutes of any grouping of players. So for a third straight game, Holtmann went with freshman Bruce Thornton, West Virginia graduate transfer Sean McNeil, Likekele, sixth-year graduate Justice Sueing and Key.

At the first media timeout, Holtmann nearly made a wholesale change. Ahead only 4-0, the Buckeyes had taken five of their first six shots from 3-point range, made just one of them and committed two turnovers when everyone save for Thornton was assigned a seat on the bench. In their place came freshmen Roddy Gayle, Felix Okpara and Sensabaugh along with Wright State fourth-year transfer Tanner Holden, putting four freshmen on the court at the same time.

It was a rough start for some of Ohio State’s key contributors, and that would remain the case for a few of them. In 24 minutes, Sueing finished with 6 points on 2 of 10 shooting. He attempted, and missed, five 3-pointers and finished with five of Ohio State’s 17 turnovers. Holtmann said during the preseason that Sueing, who missed all but two games last season with a groin injury, would experience some ups and downs as he reacclimated himself to Division I basketball.

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While rust was part of the picture, Holtmann didn’t pin Sueing’s night on just that.

“Yeah, I think some of that (was rust),” Holtmann said. “He’s a much better shooter than how he’s shot it up to this point. He just is. But he missed some open ones. I do think teams are going to play him like this. They’re going to short close on him. Teams really did that in his year in the Big Ten and he ended up shooting it at almost 34, 35 percent and teams stopped short closing on him.

“He’s got to continue to take good ones and I’m confident he’ll knock them down.”

Two seasons ago, Sueing averaged 10.7 points while shooting 49.1% from the floor and a career-best 36.1% (22 for 61) from deep after spending his first two seasons at California. He opened this season with 20 points against Robert Morris while going 2 for 3 from 3. Three days later against Charleston Southern, Sueing had 11 points and missed three 3-point attempts.

He’s now shooting 41.9% overall (13 for 31) and 18.2% (2 for 11) from deep.

Meanwhile, McNeil, who hit 155 3-pointers during the last three seasons at West Virginia and was 4 for 8 in his first two games for Ohio State, went scoreless in 28:37 against the Panthers. He attempted two 3-pointers, missing them both, and had two rebounds, one assist and one turnover. It’s only his second scoreless game in the last three seasons and the first since he was 0 for 5 from the floor with three 3-point misses in a Feb. 21, 2022 loss at TCU.

Key finished with a double-double, scoring 10 points and pulling down a career-high-tying 14 rebounds. Likekele also had 10 rebounds, three assists, a steal, a block and three turnovers, but outside of Key Ohio State’s starters scored 15 points on 6 for 23 shooting.

“The starting lineup will always be pretty fluid,” Holtmann said. “Could there be a change in the future? It’s possible, but we subbed pretty quickly today because I felt like our effort with that group needed to improve.”

Ohio State finishes with 17 turnovers

Tuesday, Holtmann said Eastern Illinois would test his team with its ability to turn teams over through its strong backcourt. While starting guards Yaakema Rose and Kinyon Hodges combined for five steals, the Panthers finished with eight takeaways but Ohio State totaled 17 turnovers.

Expect at least some more of the same throughout the season from these Buckeyes.

“We have got to continue to be simple in how we play offensively,” Holtmann said. “Listen, I think we’re going to turn the ball over more than we have in the past. When you have this number of new guys and this number of freshmen and a number of our freshmen are handling the ball and Justice coming back, he’s got to take care of the ball better. He’s got to, and he’s got to be better in that area, but that’s an area where we will improve as the year goes on but I don’t think we’ll be when we had CJ Walker and that group. I’m not sure that’s realistic with this group.”

The Buckeyes are averaging 15.0 turnovers per game. Their turnover percentage of 21.2% is 252nd nationally and Ohio State’s worst mark since the 2003-04 Buckeyes. With Walker as a senior, the 2020-21 Buckeyes had a turnover percentage of 15.5%, which was 18th nationally and the best mark under Holtmann.

Quotable

“We’re a work in progress.” – Holtmann

“Our defense was something that carried us. We were able to force tough shots and keep them, obviously our offense wasn’t how we wanted it to. Keeping their offense down is something that was going to be important for us. I think that’s something we did. As the game went on, the margin separated as our defense got better.” – Sensabaugh

“It’s only the beginning of the season. I’m getting a rhythm myself and trying to still figure some things out. I hang my hat on doing everything every single game, filling the stat sheet up, which helps my team win. The stuff that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet too: toughness, boxing out, a bunch of stuff. I just want to win. That’s my end goal.” – Likekele, on his stat line

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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