Ohio State basketball veterans respond against Cincinnati after Chris Holtmann's challenge

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

LAHAINA, Hawaii – There were plenty of issues to address with his team and not much time to waste. After in his estimation Ohio State had played 15 minutes of defense in a Maui Invitational opener against No. 17 San Diego State on Monday night, Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann had about 18 hours to prepare his team for a second-day matchup with Cincinnati.

He started with three players: Isaac Likekele, Zed Key and Justice Sueing. Against the Aztecs, the three players with 279 combined games of college basketball experience totaled 15 points and 12 rebounds in an 88-77 loss.

Holtmann needed more from them, and he said as such.

OSU basketball:Ohio State basketball beats in-state foe Cincinnati Bearcats in Maui

“There’s going to be inconsistency with freshmen,” he told The Dispatch. “There has to be consistency of play from those three guys and I’m giving a little bit of latitude to Justice because he’s still coming back from a season-ending injury.”

Zed Key led all Ohio State basketball scorers with 19 points, 8 rebounds

The three players evidently got the message. In an 81-53 win against the Bearcats, Key led all scorers with 19 points and eight rebounds. Sueing had his first double-digit scoring game with 11 points and pulled down a season-high six rebounds. Likekele finished with seven rebounds, four assists and one turnover in a game-high 27:37 of playing time.

On this afternoon inside the Lahaina Civic Center, Ohio State got contributions from seemingly every player on the roster but the tone was set early by Key, Likekele and Sueing. With the Buckeyes ahead 13-10 at the first media timeout with 14:46 left to play, the three had scored all 13 points and pulled down all eight individual rebounds for Ohio State.

Key set the tone inside, scoring eight of those 13 points with his aggression in the paint. He tipped in a Sean McNeil 3-point miss, scored on a putback of a Sueing 3-point miss, bullied his way into the paint for two more and helping end the run with a flourish.

After Key missed a 3-pointer, Likekele tracked down the rebound along the right wing and fed it back to the big man as he cut toward the basket. Key took the pass, drew the defender and dished to Sueing, who jammed it home and led to a Cincinnati timeout.

“I just had to come out from the beginning with more juice,” Key said. “That was my issue (Monday). I was trying to feel out the game and you can't do that at this level. So I made that adjustment.”

He did, and the Bearcats would never really recover. Once Ohio State took the lead on a Bruce Thornton pullup jumper in the paint with 10:30 remaining, it would never trail again and eventually push its lead to the game-high 28-point margin of victory.

Cincinnati Bearcats basketball coach Wes Miller on Key: '... It wasn't just his post catches: it was his offensive rebounding'

Cincinnati coach Wes Miller said Key’s ability to use his physicality to get position is as good as arguably anybody in the country. The plan of attack was to try and push him out and, when he did get the ball, double him from the baseline.

“They do a lot of good stuff, simple stuff, to get him the ball, but it's well-designed, and their team knows how to get it in,” Miller said. “He got such deep catches. That was really hard, and the one or two times we did push him out we didn't execute our post double. But it wasn't just his post catches: it was his offensive rebounding.”

Half of Key’s eight rebounds came on the offensive glass. Ohio State grabbed 19 of its 34 misses and turned that into a 27-16 advantage in second-chance points. Likekele had three offensive rebounds and Sueing had two.

In a return to his home state, Sueing went 3 for 11 against San Diego State to drop him to 8 for 28 (28.6%) from the floor in his last three games. Against the Bearcats, his 11 points came on a team-high 13 shots that included an 0 for 4 effort from 3, but he was 3 for 5 from the line and aggressive getting to the rim.

Their contributions, plus the production of freshmen Brice Sensabaugh (17 points on 5 of 9 shooting) and Bruce Thornton (career-high 17 points on 6 of 9 shooting and two steals), helped the Buckeyes turn the page after their first significant test of the season collectively found them lacking.

“For us, the main thing was just not quitting,” Thornton said. “San Diego State is a great team with great coaches and great staff. It was our first battle. So I'm just glad our team and our coaches still believed in us, even when we was down. They just said, Just no quit and just find a way. We brought it over into this game and came with a great outcome.”

Ohio State draws final-day game with No. 21 Texas Tech

The Buckeyes will get a second top-25 game under their belts before heading back to the mainland. After losing to San Diego State and beating Cincinnati, Ohio State will play a Red Raiders team that lost 76-65 to No. 10 Creighton and rebounded with a 70-38 win against lowly Louisville.

Texas Tech is 4-1 with wins all against teams ranked No. 132 or lower according to but is ranked No. 6 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to San Diego State is ranked No. 9.

“It’s going to be unlike any style I’ve played in my five years (at Ohio State),” Holtmann said. “We’ve never played a style like this. It’s very unique. I know there’s a number of teams in the Big 12 that play this way. They’re a really good team.”

Two Buckeyes have extensive experience against Texas Tech. In four years at Oklahoma State, Likekele went 4-4 against the Red Raiders while averaging 7.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists. In three years at West Virginia, Sean McNeil went 3-3 while averaging 10.5 points and shooting 35.7% (10 for 28) from 3.

McNeil also tied a career high with 26 points on 5-of-7 shooting from 3 in an 82-71 road win Feb. 9, 2021.

Isaac Likekele, Buckeyes shut down Landers Nolley II

Twenty minutes after San Diego State finished off Ohio State on Monday night, Cincinnati and Arizona played a high-scoring affair that was entertaining if not particularly close. The Wildcats advanced in the winners’ bracket with a 101-93 win against the Bearcats, who had been held to 51 points five days earlier in a road loss to Northern Kentucky.

A big reason for the turnaround? Fourth-year forward Landers Nolley II, who went 9 for 14 from 3 for a game-high 33 points.

“What did he have nine threes? Eight threes? Yeah, he's going to get a couple stars in the scouting report with those kind of numbers,” Holtmann said. “He's a really good player.”

To try and contain the 6-7, 220-pound Nolley, Holtmann turned to the 6-5, 215-pound Likekele. And in 25:21, Nolley finished with 2 points, four rebounds, one assist and two turnovers while missing on three 3-point attempts.

So while Likekele was scoreless and missed all six of his shot attempts, Holtmann praised the veteran for his job in shutting down Nolley

“Isaac I thought was very good today,” he said. “Very good. I know he was 0 for 6, but he held a guy who had 30-something last night to 2 points. That’s pretty important to winning, and he had four assists. That’s pretty important. I give him a ton of credit.”

Added Miller: “I always say, the first thing you do is tip your cap to the other team. They deserve some credit. Chris's group deserves some credit.”

Kalen Etzler scores his first career points

The final points of the game were the first in the career of Kalen Etzler, Ohio State’s redshirt freshman forward.

The 6-8, 190-pound Etzler totaled 13:49 of playing time in three blowout wins to open the season and missed one 3-point attempt in each game before being an unused substitution in Monday’s loss to No. 17 San Diego State. Tuesday against the Bearcats, Etzler checked in with two minutes to play and Ohio State ahead 77-53 before nabbing an offensive rebound with seven seconds remaining.

Etzler then fired a jumper that found the net, setting off a celebration on the Ohio State bench and setting the final score.

All-Ohio battle held varying interest levels to Buckeyes, Bearcats

The oddness of two Ohio teams playing five time zones away didn’t mean register much to the participants. The two teams who had to travel the farthest to get here are located only 107 miles apart.

“We knew this was an important game,” Holtmann said. “Obviously it's an in-state school, (and) anytime you're playing an in-state school there's a lot of importance to that too.”

The two teams last met in to open the 2019-20 season. Just one player remains on either program from that game: Cincinnati guard Jeremiah Davenport, who had 8 points and three rebounds in 22:22 on Tuesday.

Asked if the chance to play Ohio State was meaningful to his team, Cincinnati forward Viktor Lakhin said, “I don't know. It's just another game we were ready to try to win. There's nothing for me personally special that we play another Ohio team. Every game is another opportunity to win. So I wouldn't highlight this game.”

Thornton, who like Nolley is from the Atlanta area and said the veteran has helped him out when he was younger, disagreed.

“It means a lot,” he said. “It's an in-state battle, so who is not trying to be the best in their state? So I feel like we showed everybody what we can do, even after a tough loss against San Diego State.”


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