BASKETBALL

Ohio State's Justice Sueing enjoys emotional final game in Maui Invitational

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

LAHAINA, Hawaii – The long journey to get back led Justice Sueing straight home again.

For the first time since his freshman season at the University of California, the Honolulu native was playing in his home state with his family in the stands. Twenty minutes into his first game in the Maui Invitational, though, the sixth-year Ohio State forward was struggling to stay on the floor. After consecutive rough outings leading into this trip back home, Sueing had missed five of seven shots and turned the ball over twice against San Diego State’s physicality.

Even with the extra leeway a year away from the game afforded him in coach Chris Holtmann’s eyes, it still kept him on the bench for half of the second half in what would be the first loss of the season. His final stat line against the Aztecs: 6 points on 3 of 11 shooting, six rebounds and a turnover.

Two days later, Holtmann and Sueing embraced near midcourt after the final seconds ticked off the clock following an 80-71 win against No. 21 Texas Tech. As the Ohio State cheering section did its thing, Sueing made a quick stop before heading into the locker room to celebrate with his teammates.

He paused on the court inside the Lahaina Civic Center as three members of the crowd made their way to him. And there, Sueing paused for a quick photo with his mom, dad and younger brother after scoring a career-high 33 points to help send Ohio State back to the mainland with a 2-1 record in his home state.

"It means a lot, especially because I was able to play in front of my family," Sueing said. "The past couple of games I've been struggling a little bit just trying to get back into the flow of things, coming back from injury, but my teammates and coaches continue to give me support and just believing in God and His path for me.”

Justice Sueing:Justice is more than just a name for Ohio State senior forward Sueing

Sueing’s performance was the emotional cap to what Ohio State advertised as a business trip to paradise, and this game started with a designed play suggested by associate head coach Jake Diebler. With a good feel for how the Red Raiders might attempt to guard the Buckeyes, Diebler suggested to Holtmann that they open with an action designed to get Sueing the ball on the left wing and driving toward the basket.

Isaac Likekele pinned his man inside the paint, creating just enough open space for Sueing to glide past his defender and throw down a dunk to open Ohio State’s scoring. It sent a tone that not only were the Buckeyes here to play, but so was their two-time captain. Sueing scored the first six points of the game for the Buckeyes, giving them a one-point lead they would never relinquish against the Red Raiders.

“It definitely set a tone for us,” Sueing said. “We wanted to come into this game being aggressive knowing that Texas Tech, they're a really defensive-minded team. So we wanted to be aggressive and not let them dictate how we play. So opening up with that baseline dunk was definitely key in our jump.”

It wasn’t the only dunk on the day for Sueing. After Texas Tech pulled within 33-31 with 3:04 remaining in the first half, Ohio State dialed up the same play for Sueing, and when he slammed the ball through it marked the final time Texas Tech would be within one possession for the remainder of the morning.

When Ohio State opened the second half with the same play, Sueing hit a jumper to push the lead back to six. And two possessions later, he finished a three-point play despite taking a shot to the groin area that was briefly concerning after missing all but two games last season with an injury to that region.

He shook it off, his teammates giggled a little bit and Sueing swished the free throw.

“He had a look tonight, and I think once he saw a few go in, he played with more confidence,” Holtmann said.

That was something the easygoing Sueing had been working to harness since his return from the injury. After the loss to the Aztecs, Holtmann said he really got after Sueing, challenging the team captain to give him more and stop committing careless turnovers. One day later against Cincinnati, Sueing had 11 points on 4 of 13 shooting but again pulled down six rebounds and this time did not have a turnover.

Against the Red Raiders, he took it up a notch. Third-year center Zed Key, who had 9 points and three rebounds, called Sueing’s performance “dazzling.”

Holtmann called it emotional.

“I was just so happy he got to have this performance in front of his family and in his home,” Holtmann said. “I just really felt really good as a coach.”

One performance does not a season make. Sueing’s 33 points were one shy of his combined total in Ohio State’s four prior games, and his next game will be at Duke one week from today. There’s an ebb and flow to the season, but a morning like this one – the game tipped at 9:30 a.m. local time – shows what kind of potential is there for a player whose return was viewed as an integral component to this team’s chance of success in 2022-23.

He’s not going to average 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists like he produced against Texas Tech, but it’s a reminder of what potential lies inside that easygoing 6-6, 210-pound frame.

“I’m enjoying every day, every moment with my teammates and staff and the games we’re blessed to be a part of,” he said. “Every day’s a blessing.”

Especially when you’re in paradise.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

 Get more Ohio State basketball news by listening to our podcasts