Sean McNeil's prolific night can't lead Ohio State past San Diego State in Maui

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

LAHAINA, HAWAII – Sean McNeil was cooking. Ohio State, having trailed by double digits was rolling. San Diego State, the No. 17 team in the country, suddenly looked vulnerable.

And then, in the span of less than a minute, the Aztecs turned it back on, ignited their offense and left Ohio State in the dust. In a first-round matchup in the first Ohio State trip to the Maui Invitational in 19 years, San Diego State (4-0) negated a McNeil-led charge with eight points in 51 seconds near the midpoint of the second half and went on to hand the Buckeyes (3-1) their first defeat of the season, 88-77, inside the Lahaina Civic Center.

"I think the second half was really the issue," coach Chris Holtmann said. "The first half I was pretty pleased with our defense for the bulk of the first half. The second half it was, it got up and down, which is fine. We just weren’t able to, they had a stretch where we cut it and they hit a couple threes off a couple odd plays and that ultimately might’ve been the difference because it kept some distance between us and them."

San Diego State’s physicality and defense arrived on the island as advertised and it wasn’t until McNeil got going that Ohio State started to threaten. After scoring two points during the first half, the West Virginia transfer who had gone scoreless last time out against Eastern Illinois hit a layup in the first two minutes of the second half that pulled the Buckeyes within 41-31 in the opening minutes.

Still down 12 a few moments later, McNeil scored seven straight for the Buckeyes and nine of their next 11, whittling the lead down to 51-47 and getting the Ohio State contingent roaring. But after his contested jumper set the deficit at four points with 13:28 to play, freshman Brice Sensabaugh lost Micah Parrish at the other end.

Parrish buried the 3-pointer, and after an Isaac Likekele miss Parrish connected again from deep. And when nobody came to the ball on the inbounds pass, Likekele threw it right to Lamont Butler, who dished it to Aguek Arop for a dunk. It was an 8-0 run in the span of less than a minute, and while Ohio State would continue to score, it couldn’t come up with enough defensive stops to seriously threaten again.

"I put on the board before the game: mental toughness," San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. "You can’t be physically tough if you’re not mentally tough. We knew this was going to be a battle and it was."

They almost did, though: down 12, Ohio State's Tanner Holden scored while being fouled by Matt Bradley, who was assessed a flagrant 1 foul on the play. Holden hit the free throws and, after being fouled on the possession, Sensabaugh hit one of two free throws.

With the Ohio State fans chanting "defense!" and the San Diego State fans screaming, the Aztecs broke through first with another Parrish 3-pointer to go ahead by 10 and again keep the Buckeyes at bay.

Ohio State is now 1-3 in opening-round games in Maui. It will face the loser of Monday night's nightcap between Cincinnati and Arizona on Tuesday at 5 p.m. Eastern.

McNeil was the high scorer for the Buckeyes at 22 points, but freshman guard Bruce Thornton was just as critical to his team's success. Against a veteran, physical backcourt, Thornton scored in double figures for the first time in his career. He fouled out with 13 points, three assists, three rebounds and one turnover.

"I was just playing in the offense," said McNeil, who had scored 19 points in three games. "Wasn’t trying to force anything. Just letting it come to me."

Sensabaugh added 15 points, becoming the first Ohio State freshman to score in double figures in his first four games since Kosta Koufos in the 2007-08 season.

A game with the potential to be a defensive grind started out as one. Against a San Diego State defense rated No. 7 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, Ohio State instead put the early clamps on the Aztecs while forcing them to miss their first eight shots. It wasn’t much better at the other end, though, as the Buckeyes scratched out only a 5-0 lead until Adam Seiko canned a corner jumper 5:04 into the game to put San Diego State on the board.

It got the Aztecs going. They scored on three straight possessions and, after forcing the Buckeyes to miss three shots and commit two turnovers on their next four possessions, took an 8-7 lead on a Lamont Butler drive with 12:37 left in the half. And as Ohio State’s defense struggled to come up with stops, the offense was forced to operate against San Diego State’s set defense.

That wasn’t pretty. At the half, Ohio State had taken 11 of its 30 shots from 3-point range and made just one of them. The Aztecs led by as many as 15 during the half, but a pair of Sensabaugh free throws with 1.5 seconds left sent the Buckeyes up the stairs to the visitors’ locker room trailing 37-26.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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