Felix Okpara: Ohio State needs 'that dog mentality' to turn losing streak around

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

The details have varied, but the general script has played out like any of the ubiquitous romantic comedies this time of year.

Typically after having fallen behind, Ohio State puts together a stretch of solid play on both ends of the court. Shots start falling, pressure increases on the opposing team and the Buckeyes are able to string enough stops together to get within one or two possessions. Sometimes they take the lead, and often these stretches have come during the second half. But inevitably, that final stop and big bucket needed to reclaim the lead or momentum goes the other way, and it’s the opponent seizing control of the final outcome.

Monday, coach Chris Holtmann said it comes down to toughness, resiliency and some specific gameplan execution in those moments. Tuesday, freshman center Felix Okpara expanded on what he feels has been lacking lately in that situations.

“Some games, I see guys trying to rush, trying to get a big shot instead of taking it one possession at a time,” he said, echoing one of Holtmann’s primary points. “Also, sometimes we’ve seen guys just playing relaxed and pretty much, I wouldn’t say giving up, but playing a little relaxed. We’re right there but we’ve got to get a little more punch but we play relaxed sometimes. We rush, take bad shots.”

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Most recently, Ohio State trailed Michigan State on Sunday by as many as 16 points during the first half but rallied and pulled within five points with about 11 minutes remaining. Freshman Bruce Thornton came up with a steal to create a chance to make it a one-possession game, but freshman forward Brice Sensabaugh and third-year center Zed Key both missed contested shots in the paint. Then Michigan State hit a 3-pointer to start an 11-2 run in the next five minutes that effectively sealed the deal.

Feb 9, 2023; Columbus, OH, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes forward Zed Key (23) reacts to losing 69-63 to Northwestern Wildcats in the NCAA men’s basketball game at Value City Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Last Thursday against Northwestern, Ohio State was within 54-52 when the Wildcats scored seven straight points to take a nine-point lead with 4:44 to play en route to a 69-63 win. Okpara said it’s not a matter of confidence but more a question of mentality.

“I wouldn’t really say confidence,” he said. “I would just say we just need that dog mentality, that killer mentality. We’ve got to go try to do what’s best for the team and play hard and smart. I feel like we’ve been lacking that in the last four, five games now. We’re going to find it though.”

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Ohio State’s next opponent is also the only one it’s beaten since New Year’s Day. Sandwiched between a five-game losing streak and this current six-game one, that win against Iowa on Jan. 21 is the lone bright spot for the Buckeyes.

Okpara said he didn’t want to single out specific games or teammates for not playing with what he sees as the right mentality during this stretch.

“I can’t really name the games,” he said. “The last three or four games, some guys, but I’m not going to call out names. I feel like we just need more guys to step up. We’ve still got seven games to go. Hopefully we get it done.

“It’s just the way we’re losing. That’s the issue right now. If we play hard, play tough, and we lose by two points but we gave our all? We get ready for the next game. I fele like the way we’re losing right now, it’s just not us. I know we’re better than this.”

Feb 9, 2023; Columbus, OH, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes center Felix Okpara (34) defends Northwestern Wildcats guard Boo Buie (0) during the second half of the NCAA men’s basketball game at Value City Arena. Ohio State lost 69-63. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Both Okpara and Key spoke with reporters Tuesday and independently said the roster remains united and committed to salvaging what remains of the season. The building pressures of the program’s longest losing streak since the 1997-98 season have led to struggles Holtmann has likened to “a dark time” for each member of the program, but all reports from practice – both publicly and privately – continue to tell the story of a team that believes in each other and its ability to get over the hump.

The 2022-23 Buckeyes are still fighting together, Okpara and Key said. They just have to do it harder.

“I would say the first part of the season we had guys hungry,” Okpara said. “They had something to prove, but now I feel like it’s just, I would say mental toughness. We’ve lost a couple games and it’s frustrating and guys are getting mad, getting pissed, but I feel like you’ve got to have the same mentality coming in the next game and trying to win.”

That looks different for different guys, Key said.

“Everyone is different,” he said. “Some people wear it more or show you and some people are more quiet: I’m gonna go get my buckets and go get stops, but I’m gonna do it quietly. We have those type of guys showing you visibly and some quiet guys as well.”

The next chance to show it comes Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.


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