With the score tied 44-all midway through the second half Wednesday night, Ohio State freshman point guard JaQuan Lyle reached his hand in and got a steal in the backcourt, taking the ball from Northern Illinois’ Jaylen Key, who had just secured a defensive rebound.
Lyle gathered the ball then quickly dished it toward the basket where he found his teammate, Jae’Sean Tate. The Buckeyes’ de-facto captain did the rest of the work, scoring inside while getting fouled to give Ohio State a two-point edge. After the media timeout, Tate made his free throw and then redshirt sophomore Kam Williams knocked in a 3-pointer on the next possession.
These two baskets were huge in the Buckeyes’ 10-2 second-half run that was critical to Ohio State’s 67-54 win over the Huskies, but head coach Thad Matta didn’t point to either shots as the reason why his team was able to climb back to the .500 mark despite an ugly performance.
“Unequivocally, our defense [was the key],” Matta said. “I think that probably the last 15 minutes of the second half we were as active as we could be. … We guarded the ball better, we got some steals, we got some deflections and we forced some turnovers where they threw it out of bounds just because we were more active.”
Matta wasn’t wrong in his claim; Northern Illinois shot a dismal 26.8 percent from the field against the Buckeyes and made just 5-of-18 attempts from behind the 3-point line. The Huskies made just 7 of their 30 second-half field goal attempts. Ohio State deserves some credit for that.
But this game was far from well-played on the offensive end of the floor, by either team. The Buckeyes themselves shot it poorly — just 39.2 percent for the game — and the two sides combined to commit 44 fouls.
It’s going to be ugly for Ohio State at times this year, though, and it already has during some stretches. The Buckeyes are a young team — that’s been discussed at length — and there are going to be growing pains along the way.
They’ve experienced quite a few of those already less than two months into the season. Many of those have resulted in losses. This one, though, Ohio State found itself on the right side of things.
“I think when we went in at halftime and came out, we just had that Buckeye basketball sense to us,” Tate said. “Getting on the ground for loose balls, being in the gaps, we just played harder and the outcome was we got the win.”
The Buckeyes again had more turnovers than they did assists. They also shot it better from behind the 3-point line (8 for 20, 40 percent) than they did from inside it (12 for 31, 38.7 percent). Fourteen Ohio State turnovers led to 16 points for Northern Illinois. If the Buckeyes play like this against, let’s say, Kentucky, they won’t end up with a win.
But Ohio State didn’t have to play Kentucky on Wednesday night; that comes Saturday. It faced a Northern Illinois team that doesn’t have a ton of talent and was able to earn a win despite playing a poor offensive game.
Matta says all the time he keeps the big picture in mind, especially with this young team. That likely won’t include an NCAA tournament appearance this season unless something drastically changes in Big Ten play, but right now it’s about building for the future.
Every win helps with that — no matter how it looks. That’s exactly what happened Wednesday night.
“I think we needed that,” Matta said. “I was happy to see us finish things out when it didn’t go maybe as well as we wanted it to and I say that from the standpoint of we didn’t shoot the ball great.
“I think from the standpoint of finishing this game off, making the plays that we had to make, that is something hopefully we can take as a positive in terms of building on.”