San Diego State credits experience for win against Ohio State in Maui

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

LAHAINA, HAWAII – The opposing crowd was rising in volume inside the Lahaina Civic Center as Isaac Likekele took the ball out of bounds under his own basket.

Less than a moment earlier, Ohio State had trimmed a 15-point deficit against No. 17 San Diego State down to four points, but now the Aztecs were quickly reasserting their dominance. A pair of 3-pointers in quick order had pushed it back to a 10-point lead, and when Likekele gabbed the ball and looked for a teammate he found his options limited. The packed San Diego State section was roaring as just one Buckeye remained back, and facing a five-second violation Likekele threw the ball in the direction of his lone fellow Buckeye.

Third-year San Diego State guard Lamont Butler saw what was happening, nabbed the pass and fed it to forward Aguek Arop for an easy dunk. Ohio State called timeout one second later to regroup, but the damage was done. Eight points in less than a minute pushed what would become an 88-77 San Diego State win out of reach for the Buckeyes.

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It also demonstrated what proved to be the separator between the two teams at this point in the season.

“I saw that the point guard took the ball out and everybody ran back,” Butler said. “So I was like, okay, somebody has to come up. And then, and no one came up for awhile, and then the dude finally came up, and he was the only guy up there, so I knew he was going to throw it there. And then after that, the fans just roared, and then that just kind of kept our momentum going right there all the way through the game.”

Ohio State guard Bruce Thornton (2) attempts to shoot under San Diego State forward Nathan Mensah, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

Against one of the nation’s top-rated defenses, Ohio State shook off a slow first half offensively to pour in 51 second-half points and frequently threaten to put the final outcome in doubt. And each time, San Diego State had enough in the tank to answer or to force the Buckeyes into what Butler described as “mental fatigue” mistakes.

In the moments when it mattered the most, the Aztecs looked the part of a team that had been there and done that and it showed up in multiple ways to Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann.

“All the ways you look at it: ability to play longer harder,” he said. “You can do that when you’re a little older. They’ve got strong, physical bodies. You could tell they were able to play through contact better than we were at times. They have a better just collective feel for each other than we do right now, which is a little bit to be expected given where we’re at.”

All five of San Diego State’s starters Monday were multi-year starters for the program. Only Ohio State’s Justice Sueing and Zed Key can claim that, and neither was a significant factor in this game. San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher didn’t call a timeout when Ohio State cut it to four.

Ohio State guard Sean McNeil (4) guards against San Diego State guard Matt Bradley (20) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

“I didn't have time to take a timeout,” he said. “We had eight points before I could blink my eyes. So Micah (Parrish) hit a couple big threes and then they forgot to leave a guy in the back court and Lamont saw that, took advantage of it and got us that extra basket.”

After opening the season with a non-conference schedule ranked third-worst nationally according to KenPom.com, San Diego State was guaranteed to provide a higher level of competition. It did, and now it’s up to Ohio State to decide how it will collectively respond.

West Virginia transfer guard Sean McNeil, who led all scorers with 22 points, pointed out that this was the fourth game of the season for a team with four freshmen and three transfers in their first years with the program all playing significant minutes.

“It’s super early,” he said. “We’re four games in. Playing a lot of freshmen. Super talented. The one thing I noticed this game is we never quit. We battled back and cut it to four. The fight that this group has I think is going to carry a long way.”

On this day, the advantage sat with San Diego State. Should the Buckeyes and Aztecs match up somehow again this season, that might not be the case.

“Maybe we had a leg up because we had more experience than Ohio State had,” Dutcher said. “But if we run into Ohio State a month from now and those young guys get all that experience, then it's going to be another tough battle if it ever happens. So we had experience on our side and I think it paid off for us.”

Sean McNeil hunts his shots

The last time Ohio State took the court, McNeil went scoreless while only attempting two 3-pointers in a season-high 28:37 of playing time. It dropped him to 6.3 points per game on 4-of-10 shooting from 3-point range, and through 20 minutes against the Aztecs McNeil had 2 points on 1-of-4 shooting including two missed 3-pointers.

What happened in the final 20 minutes was a different story. In his most impactful offensive minutes of the year, McNeil scored 20 points after halftime on 8-of-10 shooting to almost single-handedly will the Buckeyes back into the fray.

Ohio State forward Justice Sueing (14) grabs a rebound over San Diego State forward Aguek Arop (33) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

Sunday morning at a press conference to preview the event that featured all eight coaches, Holtmann said McNeil hadn’t been hunting his shot hard enough against Eastern Illinois.

“He’s got to be more aggressive and we’ve told him that,” Holtmann said. “We’ve showed him that on film. He can’t be reckless, but he needs to be more aggressive.”

That certainly applied in the second half. McNeil was 3 for 5 from 3-point range and perfect on five shots inside the arc, doing his damage by getting to the rim and also knocking down contested jumpers.

His 22 points were the most for McNeil since he had 26 in a win against Kansas State on Jan. 8, 2022.

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“I’ve had multiple conversations with the staff,” he said. “They want me to be more aggressive. I was more aggressive in the first half, but in the second half I saw one or two fall and confidence builds and that’s what happens.”

Down 45-33, McNeil scored seven straight points for the Buckeyes and 12 of their next 16 during the stretch that saw Ohio State briefly pull within four points. He hit his first seven shots of the half, but things got tougher when San Diego State stopped guarding him with 5-10 guard Darrion Trammell and started running bigger defenders onto him.

In the final 10 minutes, McNeil only got two more shot attempts.

“Yeah, I mean, I obviously saw the height advantage, so that was in my favor, but once I made a few they changed up the matchup a little bit,” he said. “That’s when I didn’t want to start forcing anything. I knew they were going to send one, maybe two guys at me and that’s when we tried to get Zed going, tried to get Brice going.”

Rematch and return amount to little for Justice Sueing, Jaedon LeDee

Monday’s game was a minor milestone for a player on each roster. For Ohio State’s Justice Sueing, it marked his first game in his home state since he played in this event with California as a freshman during the 2017-18 season. For San Diego State’s Jaedon LeDee, it was a rematch against the team he played for as a freshman before transferring to TCU and now to the Aztecs.

On a night where the teams combined for 165 points, neither Sueing nor LeDee distinguished themselves on the stat sheet. Sueing started, played 22:59 and went 3 for 11 from the floor for 6 points with six rebounds, an assist, a steal, a block and a turnover.

LeDee, who had averaged 16.0 points in San Diego State’s first three games, finished with 6 points on 2-of-6 shooting. He added five rebounds, an assist, a block and a turnover in 20:47 off the bench.

Since scoring 20 points in the season opener against Robert Morris on Nov. 7, Sueing has scored 23 points in his last three games (7.7 per game) while shooting 28.6% (8 for 28) from the field. In Maui, Sueing missed his first four shots before putting back his own miss for his first points with 11:23 remaining in the first half.

His six rebounds were a season high.

Ohio State draws Cincinnati in second day of Maui Invitational

Two teams from the Buckeye state had to travel five time zones away for their third regular-season meeting of the last five years.

After Ohio State lost to San Diego State and Cincinnati lost to Arizona 101-93 in Monday’s final game in Maui, the two teams will face each other in a 5 p.m. matchup that will be broadcast on ESPN2. The Buckeyes and Bearcats played a home-and-home series against each other in 2018-19 and 2019-20, first at Cincinnati and then at Ohio State.

The Buckeyes won both games by an identical score of 64-56.

Just one player remains on either roster from the most recent matchup: Cincinnati’s Jeremiah Davenport, who had 3 points and two rebounds in five minutes. This is only the fifth regular-season meeting between the teams since 1962.

Numbers

*Ohio State scored 51 points during the second half against a team ranked ninth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com.

*The Buckeyes had a season-low eight turnovers. Their previous season low was 14.

*Zed Key finished with 7 points and three rebounds in 20:54 of foul-plagued basketball, ending his streak of three straight games with double-doubles to open the season.

*Freshman Bruce Thornton scored in double figures for the first time, finishing with 13 points, three assists, two steals and one turnover in 24:52.

Quotable

“It was great to see Sean break out and play like we’ve seen glimpses. Loved how aggressive he was. Thought we had some really good stretches of play overall tonight. It was obviously a really solid game for Bruce (Thornton). It was great to see against terrific competition. We had a number of guys that gave us good moments that will continue to get better.” – Holtmann

“As a team, we didn’t get enough stops and weren’t playing well enough on the defensive end. We gave up too many second-chance opportunities. That’s something we’ll work on and continue to get better at.” – McNeil

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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