In the huddle, head coach Chris Holtmann knew what he wanted. He planned to get Duane Washington Jr. going to the right side to use his dominant hand with an at-the-rim shot while putting E.J. Liddell underneath the basket to clean up anything errant. That, he thought, would get it done.
The Buckeyes had 12 seconds left and, trailing Northwestern by one point, all they needed was just one more bucket. Just one.
Holtmann had it play out in front of him almost exactly how he wanted. Washington, with the ball in his hands, raced around the right side of the lane, launched himself toward the rim and released the ball for a right-handed layup just outside of the restricted area arc. What Seth Towns aptly described as a “nearly uncontested” shot at the rim missed, with Washington just putting too much oomph on his eighth miss on nine shots of the day. Liddell cleaned it up, grabbing the rebound with only a few seconds left but lost control of the ball that ended up in Boo Buie’s hands with two seconds on the clock.
“We had a good opportunity to get a rebound with E.J. Everything worked out how coach drew it up,” Towns said. “It just didn't fall for us.”
A 40-minute game during which the Buckeyes led for nearly 29 minutes – including almost 18 minutes in the second half – ultimately just came down to that one play.
If Washington makes his shot or if Liddell can follow up with an offensive rebounds, Ohio State’s in a good spot to leave Evanston victorious. If he misses and Liddell can’t get any second-chance points, the Buckeyes probably lose.
On Saturday, one game after Ohio State stormed back from a 16-point deficit to beat Rutgers, the latter scenario transpired on the Welsh–Ryan Arena court as time ran down in a 71-70 loss.
“Guys executed it well,” Holtmann said. “We just didn't make the shot.”
The end-of-game miss punctuated a late-second-half offensive performance that sunk an Ohio State team now charged with learning from it going forward.
In the final eight minutes of Saturday’s Big Ten clash, the Buckeyes made only two shots from the field. Sure, they added a pair of free throws each from Kyle Young and Liddell during that stretch, but those weren’t nearly enough to make up for stagnant offense and poor, contested looks players had thrown up.
Ohio State ended the game making two of its last 10 shots, missing all four attempted 3-pointers during the stretch. Despite being in the bonus, the Buckeyes drew just two fouls in the last eight minutes.
“We weren't trying to hold it,” Holtmann said. “I think it was more of a combination of a situation where we were stopping the ball too much. Our guys were stopping the ball too much. We didn't move it enough on enough possessions. I thought we had a good possession there with Kyle as he finished in the post. We struggled a little bit with some of their traps of E.J. But all in all, we just weren't moving the ball enough there.”
Liddell and Young combined for all 12 of Ohio State’s points in the last 9:30 of the game. The duo of big men thrived down low throughout, managing 15 and 14 points, respectively, while leading the Buckeyes on the glass with eight boards apiece where they held a 40-26 advantage in rebounding. They, quite clearly, kept their team in the game until the end.
But, to view that with a different perspective: Neither starting guard – Washington nor CJ Walker – scored a point in the final nine minutes despite being the team’s only two players who were on the court for the entirety of the second half. They both scuffled the entire game offensively, combining for 13 points on 4-of-18 shooting while accounting for only five points in the second half. And they didn't make up for it by jump-starting the offense with their distributing either, as evidenced by the ball-stopping on display.
That, quite simply, cannot happen given Holtmann’s reliance on them. The two upperclassmen have played the most minutes this season, played the most minutes on Saturday and will continue to play the most minutes compared to their teammates the rest of the way.
“We had a couple possessions there where we had a number of guys where the ball stopped with them,” Holtmann said. “I thought our forwards did a really nice job kind of playing through each other. It's not just on CJ; it's on our guards collectively. We've got to finish games. I thought we also had some decent looks that we didn't make. And then we passed up some shots that we've got to take and then ended up taking a tougher shot. I think there's a lot of things that hopefully we can take and learn from.”
The lack of offensive flow in the latter half of the second half gave the Wildcats an opening, and to their credit, they pounced.
Northwestern came into the day shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range, and up until the end of Saturday’s game, the Buckeyes had done well to quell their opposition from deep. The Wildcats were 4-of-14 from behind the arc – until the final few minutes.
Washington helped off of Chase Audige to pick up a rolling big man in the post, leaving Audige open for a 3-pointer to put Northwestern ahead by two points with less than two minutes to go. A jab step gave Boo Buie some space on the ensuing possession, and the sophomore guard rose over Walker to give Northwestern three more points and a three-point lead with 1:03 remaining.
Those two openings, along with Ohio State’s lackluster late-game offense, were all Northwestern needed in the last two-and-a-half minutes to pull the home upset and move to 3-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in more than five decades.
“We had to stay locked in defensively, continue to get good possessions on offense and we slipped up a few times,” Young said. “It is disappointing, but there's nothing we can do about it now. Like I said, we've just got to take what we can from this game and learn from it.”