Head coach Chris Holtmann, feeling the tide turning, stepped out onto the court and called a timeout. His Ohio State team, which watched Northwestern turn a 12-point deficit into a one-point deficit with just a little more than four minutes remaining in Wednesday’s Big Ten matchup, needed to catch its breath, settle down and regroup.
Part of Holtmann’s philosophy with his players is to learn from games but not to harp on them. He doesn’t spend oodles of time going back on the past, rather preferring to focus with his team on gradual, day-to-day improvement. But anybody who’d seen the Buckeyes-Wildcats game on Dec. 26 felt the similarities. In both of the games three weeks apart, Ohio State controlled the action for the vast majority of regulation before head coach Chris Collins’ team made a late dash to close the gap.
Three weeks ago, the Buckeyes failed to close it out, losing 71-70. On Wednesday, they responded to an 8-0 Northwestern run with an 12-0 run of their own to secure an 81-71 victory.
“This is the most proud I've been of our team the entire year,” Holtmann said. “This is the most proud I've been of our group. I thought to respond the way we did, I thought Northwestern played well and I thought we played pretty well – not perfect. But this is the most proud I've been of our group. Being down a couple ball-handlers, having a number of guys step up. They had a week to prepare. I knew they would play well, and they did. It's a tough matchup for us at times.”
That last four-minute stretch was where, Holtmann believes, he learned a little something about this team and these players. Learned about their makeup and toughness in a moment where the game’s result remained in the balance.
By that point, the Buckeyes – playing without veteran point guards CJ Walker and Jimmy Sotos due to injuries – had squandered a double-digit lead. After a Kyle Young bucket under the hoop gave them a 12-point edge with 9:32 remaining, they scored three points over the next five-and-a-half minutes while going just 1-for-7 from the field. Boo Buie had just knocked down a triple to chop Ohio State’s lead down to a single point when Holtmann called the timeout.
Ohio State, in danger of falling behind for the first time since the eighth minute of the first half, came out for what Justin Ahrens described as “that last four-minute war” needing to turn it up offensively. And that’s exactly what happened.
Justice Sueing got downhill but had his path cut off, so he found an Ahrens spotting up behind the arc. Playing point forward, the 6-foot-7 junior hit Ahrens who buried a spot-up 3-pointer that put the Buckeyes up by four.
“That was the biggest shot of his career,” Holtmann said, noting the stakes in a competitive game within the Big Ten.
Two possessions later, Sueing drew a foul and while finishing a layup in transition to extend the edge to six points. Young made it an eight-point advantage the next trip down the court when Duane Washington Jr. found him for an and-one layup under the basket after getting swallowed up by the defense in the paint. The next trip down the court, Washington did it himself, getting to the rack for a high-degree-of-difficult layup over two Northwestern big men.
“His decision-making in the last four minutes probably won the game for us,” Holtmann said of Washington who led the team career-highs in points (23) and assists (6).
All along the way, too, Northwestern couldn’t get anything going offensively, missing five straight attempts over the course of more than three minutes as the game slipped away from the road team down the stretch.
That, because of what happened in late December, was particularly sweet for the Buckeyes.
“Obviously us players in practice, we've known that we had a number out for them because we lost a tough one up there at Northwestern,” Ahrens said. “What we learned from that loss up there was we just had to play smarter and harder in the last four minutes of the game, five minutes of the game. Went out there and did that tonight and ended it with a good result.”
For a team that Holtmann believes to be a work in progress, that was the exact progression he wanted to see from his bunch.
Washington played with the offensive efficiency he has sought for years, making 7-of-17 shots and draining a trio of 3-pointers. Ahrens knocked down four 3s. Sueing, playing his first game as a lead guard ever, recorded 13 points and seven boards by doing what Holtmann described as a "really good job" running the show. Young managed 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds to continue his "outstanding" stretch of play. Musa Jallow had a memorable steal that led to an and-one in transition. Meechie Johnson made the first two shots of his collegiate career in 11 minutes off the bench. Zed Key scored seven points and came down with three offensive boards.
And, most importantly, they exacted their revenge by clamping down in the game’s most important minutes.
“I think the reality is we've improved, we've grown, we've gotten better,” Holtmann said. “As I've said from the very beginning, I really enjoy coaching this group. But we've got a lot of progress that we need to make to play in the best league in the country. That's all our focus is on is how can we, as simple as it sounds, how can we take from this, work on film tomorrow.”