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Three games in, Ohio State freshman Brice Sensabaugh scoring at prolific clip

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

Eastern Illinois, overmatched and outclassed, was threatening to make things interesting at Value City Arena on Wednesday night.

The Buckeyes, who never trailed in what would be a third straight win by at least 20 points to open the season, had held the Panthers to only five points through the first seven minutes. Defensively, Ohio State was doing what it was supposed to do against a team ranked as the nation’s 14th-worst according to KenPom.com. At the other end of the court, though, it was a different story, as the Buckeyes missed 10 of their first 12 shots and had scratched out a meager 8-5 lead.

Then Brice Sensabaugh happened. First, the freshman hit a 3-pointer to double Ohio State’s advantage. Then he connected on a turnaround jumper on the ensuing possession, which was followed by a straight-on jumper from the paint for a personal 7-0 run. Then, after a Tanner Holden 3-pointer and Eastern Illinois timeout, Sensabaugh hit another 3.

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Just like that, the freshman had 10 points in the span of less than three minutes. He would go on to finish with a game-high 20 in the 65-43 win, taking center stage in what would be Ohio State’s final test before heading to the Maui Invitational.

He’ll depart the mainland as Ohio State’s leading scorer whose star is just starting to rise.

“As games go by and I get more comfortable with myself and playing with this team, it’s just taking what the defense gives me,” Sensabaugh said after the game.

The start to his Ohio State career has been the most prolific offensively in several years. After scoring 17 points in the opening win against Robert Morris and 14 three days later against Charleston Southern, Sensabaugh’s 51 points through his first three games are the most for an Ohio State freshman since D’Angelo Russell scored 54 points in the first three of the 2014-15 season.

Thirty-two of those 54 points came in one game, tied for the fourth-most for a freshman in single-game program history, but it followed up a 6-point effort against Marquette. The last Ohio State freshman to score in double figures in his first three career games was Jared Sullinger, who had 19, 26 and 11 to open the 2010-11 season.

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“He’s not really surprised us offensively,” coach Chris Holtmann said of Sensabaugh after the Eastern Illinois game. “He’s a very gifted offensive player.”

It could ultimately lead to a bigger role for the freshman. Ohio State has used the same lineup to start each of its first three games, and although it has a team-best plus-minus rating of plus-39 and has logged the most minutes of any grouping, Holtmann has repeatedly said he considers his starting lineup to be fluid this year.

Against Eastern Illinois, Holtmann said Sensabaugh would’ve played more had the game required it. Instead, he was subbed out after hitting a pair of free throws with 8:59 left that gave Ohio State a 49-30 lead on a night where most of the team’s starters struggled offensively. Sensabaugh’s 20 points came in only 16:47, while forward Justice Sueing had 6 points in 24:00 and graduate transfer guard Sean McNeil was scoreless on two 3-point attempts in 28:37.

His 16 free-throw attempts lead the team, as do his 34 field-goal attempts and 14 3-point attempts. He’s done that despite playing the seventh-most minutes.

“We want him to stay aggressive,” Holtmann said. “I think his minutes obviously will increase here, but I think there’s been a couple that maybe I’d say that’s not the best one. Maybe one or two tonight, long, contested twos, but outside of that I think (his shot selection) has been pretty good.”

It’s Sensabaugh’s defense and rebounding that Holtmann said has helped keep him out of the starting lineup and been his primary challenge in adapting to college basketball. That’s hardly unique to him and is something Sensabaugh said he’s been working to address.

“Getting quicker and understanding the game and defensive principles that come with this level,” he said as the season got underway when asked about his emphasis in those areas. “Obviously players are bigger and stronger and faster, just locking in on defense, guarding who I need to and keeping them in front and then finishing possessions with rebounds is important.”

So, too, is putting the ball in the hoop. And if he keeps scoring at a similar rate as the level of competition increases, look for his playing time to follow suit.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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