With 3 minutes, 17 seconds remaining Sunday, Ohio State found itself in a familiar position down by four points against one of the Big Ten’s top teams. The Buckeyes had been here before previously — against Maryland, Purdue and Wisconsin — with chances to win and came up short. This time it was No. 8 Iowa in town and all signs pointed toward a similar end result.
But playing without Jae’Sean Tate, Ohio State’s sophomore forward who has been dubbed the team’s “heart and soul” by his teammates and coaches, the Buckeyes made timely shots down the stretch and got key stops when they needed to and used a 12-2 run to close things out on their way to a 68-64 win.
“I thought we did a great job moving the basketball down the stretch, we found open guys, guys were where they were supposed to be. I thought we played harder, all five guys out there,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said afterward. “This was a great win because A., we won the game, but B., how we had to win it. Being down and fighting and scraping and clawing, we came together.”
The plays Ohio State made over the game’s final three minutes were ones they simply hadn’t made in previous opportunities against top-tier teams in Big Ten play.
The first came when JaQuan Lyle was stuck near the baseline as the shot clock wound down. Lyle avoided trouble, however, and delivered a beautiful bounce pass along the end line, through traffic to Marc Loving in the corner, who caught the ball and buried a 3-pointer to bring the Buckeyes within one.
The second was after Ohio State got a stop on the other end and Kam Williams came off a screen and caught the ball near the top of the key. The Buckeyes' redshirt sophomore sharpshooter connected on a jumper that gave Ohio State a one-point lead. The shot appeared to be a 3-pointer, but after a long delay the officials ruled it only as a two-point shot.
The third came after the Buckeyes got another stop on the next possession, and it was Williams again who delivered a dagger when he caught another nice pass from Lyle off a pick-and-roll and drained a corner 3. With exactly one minute to play, Ohio State led 66-62.
But the biggest play of the game for the Buckeyes came on the other end of the floor. Iowa had the ball down by two with 7.5 seconds to play when point guard Mike Gesell went the length of the floor and was headed toward what appeared to be an uncontested layup. Out of nowhere though came Keita Bates-Diop, who blocked Gesell at the rim. The ball went to Loving, who was fouled, and then made a pair of free throws with 1.2 left on the clock to seal the victory.
“I feel like today we just showed a great amount of toughness and the ability to fight adversity,” said Loving, who finished with a game-high 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting.
“I’m just proud of our overall team effort,” Williams added. “Everybody stepped up in a big way this game. It’s good to see us keep fighting possession after possession and we got a good result.”
Sunday was arguably the best game of Loving’s career. Ohio State’s lone junior stepped up and was the go-to guy the Buckeyes needed without Tate in the lineup. But Loving got some help, too. Bates-Diop scored 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting and Williams scored all 11 of his points in the final 8:08 of play.
Mickey Mitchell was scrappy in a career-high 25 minutes, scoring six points and snaring seven rebounds. Lyle did not score and struggled much of the afternoon, but his two key assists down the stretch were both things of beauty. He finished the game with five dimes.
“I was just excited to see guys step up,” Matta said.
“We didn’t think that we were never going to win a game against just because Jae’Sean was out,” Loving added, “but there is some type of confidence boost you could say, beating a team the caliber of Iowa without one of our main guys.”
Because that’s exactly what has been lacking all season for Ohio State — a win over one of the Big Ten’s clear-cut top-tier teams. The Buckeyes now have 11 wins in the conference — a feat that frankly didn’t seem possible when this team was 2-4 overall to start the year — but nine of those victories are against teams that won’t be in the NCAA tournament. This win was big for so many reasons.
Ohio State was left for dead after Tuesday’s 19-point loss to Michigan State, but the Buckeyes are still breathing after Sunday’s victory over the Hawkeyes. Ohio State closes out its regular-season next Saturday against the Spartans at Breslin Center. It’s certainly going to be a tall task for the Buckeyes to win that game so the more likely scenario is a run in the Big Ten tournament for Ohio State to play itself into an NCAA tournament bid.
But the bigger point here is the Buckeyes finally broke through the wall. Ohio State had been so close all season to winning a game like this and on this particularly night, it got it done.
“This was a pretty big win,” Williams said, “As you could see I was pretty excited when the buzzer went off, yelling to the crowd.
“That’s what we play for, though, to get a big-time win like that on CBS in front of everybody. That’s what you come to Ohio State for.”