After Jae’Sean Tate was asked the first question of Sunday’s postgame press conference following Ohio State’s 74-72 loss to Northwestern, the Buckeyes’ junior forward glanced down at the stat sheet in front of him and paused for roughly 10 seconds before he responded.
The answer he delivered was nowhere on that piece of paper.
“I just think that at times we just weren’t locked in,” Tate said. “There was times in the game where we started a run, but we just couldn’t capitalize. I think in the first half, at the end, we just didn’t work together as a team. They got that little run and we just didn’t have it tonight.”
So, it begged the question: How could an Ohio State team that absolutely needed this game against an NCAA-tournament caliber Northwestern side “not have it?” How could the Buckeyes, winners of their last two games after an 0-4 Big Ten start, not be ready to play at home against a team which had won three straight entering Sunday?
“It’s just disappointing,” junior center Trevor Thompson said. “I would hope it leaves a bitter taste in all of our mouths because how we’ve been playing up until this and to play how we played, come out how we came out today is mind boggling.”
Northwestern shot just 38 percent from the field and made only 7-for-24 from behind the 3-point line. Compare that to Ohio State’s 46 percent showing from the floor and 8-for-22 effort from downtown, and it seems like there’s no way the Buckeyes should have lost this game.
But Ohio State’s 13 turnovers — which led to 17 points for the Wildcats — and its dismal 12-for-23 showing at the free-throw line ultimately cost the Buckeyes this win.
“Yeah, most definitely, and then kind of the hustle plays,” head coach Thad Matta said. “We couldn’t come up with the ball that we needed to come up with. You look at the stats sheet, if you don’t look at the final score, you say, ‘Oh, Ohio State won today.’”
“But we weren’t as sharp as we needed and the turnovers led to baskets for them. I thought our halfcourt defense was pretty decent in terms of what we were trying to do, what we were trying to take away, but Northwestern is too good to give them free points that’s for sure.”
“At the end of the day, we have to represent Ohio State. We can’t play for ourselves. We have to play for the university, we have to play for each other. That’s why a lot of times it happens is we’re thinking about ourselves and we’re not playing for the team, we’re not playing for the university and all the players and all the championships and all the wins that came before us.”– Trevor Thompson
Sunday's game was essentially a must-win for Ohio State. The Buckeyes gave themselves no margin for error after their slow start in the Big Ten. Tight games at home against NCAA tournament opponents are the kind of ones Ohio State needs to find a way to come out victorious.
The Buckeyes didn’t get it done and they know they let one slip away.
“At the end of the day, we have to represent Ohio State,” Thompson said. “We can’t play for ourselves. We have to play for the university, we have to play for each other. That’s why a lot of times it happens is we’re thinking about ourselves and we’re not playing for the team, we’re not playing for the university and all the players and all the championships and all the wins that came before us.”
“We have to play selfless. We have to lose ourselves in the game and not think about ourselves. When we compete, when we play hard, good things happen and that’s shown. It just has to be consistent and it can’t be choosing one day not to do it. It has to be consistent every single day.”
Tate, Thompson and Matta all said the team practiced poorly Friday leading up to Sunday’s game against Northwestern. There was a feeling that carried over into the game.
“I was very, very disappointed on Friday. Let that be known,” Matta said. “One of the guys said they’ve got to look themselves in the mirror and we have to realize who we are and what we have to do every time we take the floor for a practice or a game.”
So, what comes next?
Ohio State has to regroup and do so quickly. The Buckeyes play three games in a six-day stretch beginning Wednesday when they host Minnesota.
The season is not over just yet, but at just 12-8 and 2-5 in the Big Ten, Ohio State is quickly running out of time to get things turned around. Many believed the back-to-back wins over Michigan State and Nebraska had this team headed in the right direction.
But after letting Sunday’s game against Northwestern slip away, it seems like the Buckeyes took two steps forward and one step back. At this point in the season, that’s simply not going to get it done.
“We know we’ve just got to treat every game like a championship game. We’ve got to treat every game like it’s our rivals,” Tate said. “We’ve just got to figure out how to bring that energy, bring that fight for 40 minutes every game.”
“Like Trev said, we have it some games and some games we don’t. I don’t really know the cure, but we’ve just gotta work and figure that out. Actually, I do know the cure. We’ve got to have better practices. We didn’t really practice as well on Friday leading into the game and, you know, you practice how you play.”