Ohio State reaches end of the line with loss to Purdue in Big Ten Tournament
CHICAGO – At the free-throw line, Ohio State’s Gene Brown III was in the process of scoring what would be the final points of the season. Finally out of gas, No. 13 Ohio State had made its way to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals with wins against No. 12 seed Wisconsin, No. 5 seed Iowa and No. 4 seed Michigan State on successive days, but No. 1 Purdue was a bridge too far.
The Boilermakers led 78-64 and were salting away the final seconds with Brown at the line when Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann called his point guard over. Freshman Bruce Thornton, voted a team captain at the midpoint of the year and a primary reason why the Buckeyes were able to do what they did at the United Center, made his way toward the bench as Brown sized up the rim.
Looking on, Holtmann put his arm around Thornton. There was no pointing out the upcoming action the Buckeyes might need to run or defend against, no urging to find a way to pull off a late rally or extend the game. There was just a coach, one of his primary hopes for better things ahead next year and the final 30 seconds of a 2022-23 season that started off with promise, took the most significant nosedive in nearly 30 years and ended on an uptick.
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That’s the thing, though: it’s over. For the first time since 2017, Ohio State won’t play in the NCAA Tournament and won’t even participate in the NIT. Although athletic director Gene Smith publicly lobbied on behalf of the Buckeyes to be considered despite a sub-.500 record heading into Saturday’s game, mounting injuries have Ohio State making the transition into the offseason with the next game slated for sometime in November.
“We have some injuries beyond kind of what's public that make it difficult right now, to be quite honest with you, that we have to really get -- we have to get some of our guys back,” Holtmann said. “They're not significant, but they need to be tended to, and they need some time off. So that might answer your question (about what’s next).”
So now it’ll be onto the transfer portal, recruiting the roster to remain intact and analyzing why the season took a sharp left turn and a blunt right one in the final weeks. The particulars will be analyzed, conversations will be had and decisions will take place in the coming weeks, but none of that had started Saturday. Ohio State came to the United Center aiming to continue the longest Big Ten Tournament run for a team to open with a Wednesday game and reach Sunday’s championship game.
For much of the first half, that seemed a possibility. Ohio State led by as many as eight points with 8:18 left, but Purdue’s Zach Edey’s physical dominance was too much to overcome, and a six-point possession aided by a Flagrant 1 foul on Ohio State’s Gene Brown III helped the Boilermakers flip the momentum and dig in. Once Purdue took a 35-34 lead with 2:41 left in the half on, yes, a bucket by Edey, the Buckeyes would trail for the remainder.
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Friday, Holtmann said that confidence can trump tired legs. Saturday, after Ohio State shot 50.0% in the first half and 34.6% after halftime, it was obvious that the tank was empty. When the final buzzer sounded, that meant the end of the line for seniors Sean McNeil, Isaac Likekele and Justice Sueing.
“Whenever that final buzzer went off, walking off the court, I'm just real appreciative of all the opportunities I've got,” Likekele said. “Definitely for Coach Holtmann right here, the bond that we built in just a short amount of time. Coach Holt, he's cared for me more than just as a basketball player. That's not something you find all around the country.
“Like I said, I'm just appreciative of everything in Ohio State.”
McNeil, who was 6 for 10 from 3 in the first two wins here for Ohio State, went 1 for 5 Friday and missed all three of his attempts Saturday, two of them coming on his team’s final possession.
“One thing I try to continue to keep at the forefront of my mind was to not take a second for granted,” he said. “We come here and surprised a lot of people, and like Justice said, we finished it off the right way. Reflected on it a little bit, but as of right now, it just hurts with my guys.”
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As the final horn sounded, freshman Roddy Gayle Jr. covered his face with his jersey. Injured center Zed Key loped his way onto the court to embrace his teammates, and eventually they made their way to the postgame handshake line. He’s planning to return next year, as are Ohio State’s three other key freshmen who played Saturday (Felix Okpara and Thornton).
Sueing, though, won’t be. After six years in college, four of them at Ohio State and two of them on the sidelines as first a transfer and then a medical redshirt, his time in Columbus is over. With his teammates heading into the locker room, Sueing made a left turn, pushed a black folding chair out of the way and walked toward the cheering section behind the Ohio State bench area.
Rising from his aisle seat about eight rows up, Sueing’s father, Justice Sr., made his way down to the court and enveloped him in a hug. Together, they stood there for several beats before the younger Sueing pulled back, wiped his face with his scarlet jersey and started down the tunnel toward the locker room.
“I think the biggest thing I'll take away from this is that we finished it off the right way,” Sueing said. “We had our ups and downs through the season. We had a lot of downs, especially to start off the year 2023.
“What's important is we were able to finish it strong together. We had our best play of basketball this past month-and-a-half, and I'm just really proud of the guys. I'm really proud of my teammates.”