Luther Muhammad knew the theme of what he wanted to say. Sitting in the makeshift postgame interview room in the corner of St. John Arena, he just couldn’t think of the perfect way to describe what he found out about his 10th-ranked Ohio State team in its 71-52 win against Kent State that required a late run to make up for a blown 17-point second-half lead.
“Today, we learned that we…” Muhammad said, trailing off.
Duane Washington Jr., sitting to his left, leaned in to the microphone on the table in front of him to finish his fellow sophomore guard’s sentence.
“We fight,” Washington said. Muhammad repeated that it in agreement. “Yeah, we fight,” he said.
“We're fighters,” Washington said, prompting Muhammad to finish the rest.
“We're fighters because they made a huge run, they cut the lead I think to four and we could've got wild and just came down chucking up shots after that trying to make hero plays, but we stayed together and we just took it one possession at a time, defense first then offense,” Muhammad said. “And that just led us to the win.”
The result should have never been in question. Not once a 3-pointer from Luther Muhammad went through the net to give the Buckeyes a 17-point advantage with 17:33 remaining in Monday night’s game. In the prior four games, once they built leads in the second half against UMass Lowell, Villanova, Stetson and Purdue Fort Wayne, they only added to their leads, and this seemed to be headed down the same path.
But in the seven minutes after Muhammad’s triple, the Golden Flashes proceeded to make 9-of-13 shots to power a 25-8 run that tied the game up at 48 points apiece.
The Buckeyes didn’t buckle, though. Muhammad sparked them by drawing a pair of fouls – including one on a 3-point attempt – and hitting five free throws. Out of a media timeout, DJ Carton then hit a reverse layup, igniting the crowd with a spin on the ball that would make a PBA bowler jealous.
“This place was loud, and St. John Arena was fantastic,” Chris Holtmann said. “I don't want to forget that. I did think that the energy of this place made a difference in a stretch where we needed it.”
Ohio State continued its run, scoring 17 points in a row over a six-minute stretch to put the game well out of reach by the time Kent State’s Danny Pippen hit a pair of free throws to end the rally.
“To be honest with you, we needed a game like this,” Holtmann said. “I give our guys the credit. I thought Andre (Wesson’s) minutes in the second half were critical, and his ability to guard (Kent State guard Antonio Williams), who was really bothering us, was critical. But I thought DJ made some plays in transition that were important. I thought Kaleb (Wesson) kind of being able to play with a little bit of foul trouble, and I thought Luther getting to the free-throw line in that stretch where we were struggling to score was critical. Duane continues to play well.”
How they responded to Kent State's rally matters, especially given the Buckeyes’ youth across the roster.
Holtmann repeatedly called this team the youngest he has ever coached prior to the season. At his disposal, he has one senior compared to seven underclassmen, including four freshmen. Eight days ago, he noted that “maturity and great leadership” are a “requirement” to handling adversity well. Yet with a team so young, it’s close to impossible to have an overly mature team. For that reason, he admitted at the time, Ohio State needs its leaders to step up when called upon.
He saw indications of that on Monday night.
“Our guys were unbelievable in the timeouts, talking, communicating,” Holtmann said. “I was upset with some of the officiating calls. They actually were the ones that probably had more composure and poise. That's important in a game like this.”
Also important? How the Buckeyes responded when the game got chippy in the second half.
Last year, when a matchup with Michigan sent emotions flaring in the second half with a pair of technical fouls, Ohio State buckled and couldn’t cut into a deficit already into double figures that only continued to grow, leading to a 65-49 loss.
When Andre Wesson and Kent State’s Anthony Roberts were assessed double technicals on Monday, the Buckeyes fed off of the energy and continued to pile on points while holding Kent State scoreless in what Holtmann believes was one of the two most physical games of the season, along with the season opener versus Cincinnati.
“It was good for us. We needed it,” Holtmann said. “It was physical. We needed that. And we now need to take it and learn how to be better in this area.”
With such a young group clearly teeming with talent, there's plenty of room for the Buckeyes to develop, as seen by them losing a 17-point lead. Just as much, though, can be gained from how they responded, which Holtmann knowingly doesn't take for granted.