Skilled offensively, defense still coming along for Ohio State's Brice Sensabaugh
LAHAINA, Hawaii – The basket came with 48 seconds remaining in the half and the faces of Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and a youthful Tom Izzo looking down on him.
With Ohio State leading No. 21 Texas Tech inside the Lahaina Civic Center on the final day of the Maui Invitational, freshman Brice Sensabaugh lined up facing the east wall covered with photos of past players and coaches to taste success in the event. The Red Raiders had pulled within four points, but Ohio State faced a baseline out-of-bounds play with the ball in sixth-year forward Justice Sueing’s hands.
It wound up being perhaps Sueing’s easiest read on a night where he led the Buckeyes in points (33), rebounds (eight) and assists (five): there, on the right block, was an absolutely wide-open Sensabaugh. Sueing dished, Sensabaugh finished and the lead was back to two possessions in what would become an 80-73 win.
It also handed Sensabaugh a milestone not seen by a Buckeye for some time. The layup gave him 10 points, moving him into double figures for the sixth straight game to open his Ohio State career. The last Buckeye to score in double figures for at least that many games to open his career?
Michael Redd, who hit double figures in the first 12 games of the 1997-98 season. As Ohio State heads back to the mainland having won two of three games in Maui and on the cusp of climbing into the Associated Press top 25 rankings Monday, Sensabaugh leaves Hawaii as the team’s leading scorer at 15.8 points per game.
“He’s been phenomenal offensively,” coach Chris Holtmann, standing outside the postgame interview room, told The Dispatch after the 80-73 win against the Red Raiders. “I’m really proud of Brice.”
According to KenPom.com, Sensabaugh is No. 178 nationally in 3-point shooting percentage (12 for 26, .462) and 498th in two-point shooting percentage (19 for 33, .576). He is No. 39 in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (7.1) and 351st in free-throw percentage (21 for 26, .808).
He’s done all that while averaging 18.1 minutes per game off the bench, second-most among Ohio State's freshmen and tops among the team's reserves.
“Most games, his minutes are starters’ minutes,” Holtmann said. “He’s going to continue to play an important role for us. He’s a great kid and he’s growing in areas he has to grow to become a complete player.”
The layup in the closing minute of the first half marked his final points of the morning. He had an opportunity for more, but on the final possession he was called for a moving screen with about four seconds left on a pick-and-roll play designed to get him a shot. After halftime, Sensabaugh played only four minutes and sat for the final 9:28 after Texas Tech scored on him on consecutive possessions.
With Ohio State ahead 54-46, Texas Tech’s De’vion Harmon drove past the freshman for a bucket. The Buckeyes answered with a Bruce Thornton 3-pointer, but on the next possession the Red Raiders managed to get Sensabaugh matched up with leading scorer Kevin Obanor, who quickly scored on a drive to the basket.
Sensabaugh then missed a 3-pointer that was collected and finished by Isaac Likekele to put Ohio State ahead 59-50, but the Red Raiders went back to Harmon, who hit a running, contested shot in the paint over Sensabaugh’s outstretched arms.
Texas Tech called timeout with 59-52 with 9:28 to play, and Sueing returned to the game in place of Sensabaugh. He would watch the remainder of the game from the bench, and for the first moment he was embraced by assistant coach (and defensive coordinator) Jack Owens.
On a night where Sueing scored a career-high 33 points and Likekele’s physicality and defensive capabilities were needed to combat Obanor, Holtmann rode his five starters for at least 30 minutes each. Holtmann has used the same starting lineup in all six games this season but has repeatedly noted that it could be fluid throughout the year. Sensabaugh’s 11:48 was the most playing time among Ohio State’s four reserves against Texas Tech.
“I think what Jack was saying to him was he made the kid shoot a tough two and did a pretty good job,” Holtmann said. “He was pleased with that. I thought Ice and Justice were both playing well so some of that was just rolling with your older guys that are playing well.”
Sensabaugh’s career high came in a 65-43 win against Eastern Illinois on Nov. 16, the final low-major tune up before heading to Maui. He finished with 20 points on 6 of 14 shooting in only 17 minutes and sat for the final 8:59 with Ohio State ahead 49-30 and the game in hand.
“I think his defense is coming along,” Holtmann said after that game. “Obviously he would’ve played more had the game not gotten to a place where I felt like we needed to play some other guys. He’s done some terrific things offensively and we needed it tonight.”
Just prior to the start of the season, Sensabaugh told The Dispatch that he wasn’t concerned with the specifics of his role and that he knew what he needed to do to see playing time.
“Definitely just play hard,” he said. “This year, we kind of have a small lineup so we’re putting a big emphasis on rebounding. Offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding, crashing the boards hard and really just playing with pace. With that small lineup, we get the opportunity to play with great pace and play a fast game.”
Six games in, Sensabaugh has already shown himself to be a critical part of that.