Wisconsin, it felt for a while, was due.
Senior forward Aleem Ford evidently believed that to be the case. He watched the Badgers – a team that shoots better than 40 percent from behind the arc at the Kohl Center – miss 17 of its first 21 3-pointers against Ohio State on their home court.
Trailing by 10 with six and a half minutes remaining Saturday night, Ford drained his squad’s first triple in 12 minutes to cut into the deficit. Eighty seconds later, he made another. Thirty-six seconds passed – during which Kyle Young scored three points on a critical and-one in the post – and Ford drilled a third 3 to conclude the two-minute span.
Suddenly, the Buckeyes who had held the lead all night found themselves clinging to a 62-58 lead with 4:40 left on the clock.
“We just had to stay together,” E.J. Liddell said. “That was their run.”
In enemy territory on the court Ohio State hadn’t won on in more than three years, the visitors didn’t panic. Rather, they regrouped, settled down and allowed just four points in the final four and a half minutes, which included a three-and-a-half minute dry spell for a Badgers team unable to get over the proverbial hump.
The No. 15 Buckeyes, though it got a bit hairy for a moment when a CJ Walker turnover cut the lead to six points with 53 seconds remaining, finalized a 74-62 victory against 10th-ranked Wisconsin.
“It was a tremendous character win for our group after, you know, a tough one the other night,” head coach Chris Holtmann said.
The “tough one,” as Holtmann characterized it, was the two-point loss to Purdue four days ago at the Schottenstein Center. In the final four minutes of a game it led for more than 35 minutes, Ohio State had as much as an 84.1 percent chance of beating the Boilermakers, per ESPN. Yet it couldn’t close the should’ve-been-a-win off and fell by two.
After the game. Holtmann decided to give his players the next day off. As it turns out, he made the right call. Liddell called it the “best day of my life,” which might be a bit of an exaggeration but hammers the points home. Especially following the loss, they wanted the 24 hours off after the grind of Big Ten play had eaten them, along with everybody else in the conference, up. Players got massages, underwent rehabbed and generally reset themselves. They rid themselves of the taste of a loss and got back to work.
The impending response from players who Holtmann says hate to lose about as much as he does allowed them to get in a pair of practices and come out swinging against Wisconsin.
“That Purdue game, obviously you hate to lose, but it taught us a ton,” Seth Towns said. “We went back to the drawing board and learned a lot from it and brought our new knowledge up to this game.”
Head coach Chris Holtmann: “I think the response was as good of a response as maybe I've seen in terms of coming back the next day ready to work.”
Liddell made a pair of jumpers and Justice Sueing got a bucket at the rim to open the top-15 matchup against Wisconsin with a six-point run, and the Buckeyes were off.
“I thought our players from the jump really grabbed ahold of this thing,” Holtmann said.
By the time Ohio State went up by five points less than four minutes into the game on a Kyle Young shot near the basket, Holtmann's group never again led by fewer than two possessions. Sure, it couldn’t completely pull away for a blowout on the road, but Wisconsin failed to truly make it an overly competitive game down the stretch.
Offensively, facing a team with a defense ranked top-five nationally in adjusted efficiency, Ohio State had the well-rounded game it sought after managing a mere eight points in the paint in this week’s loss to Purdue. The coaches used Liddell and Young to establish a presence down low, Liddell and Seth Towns made Wisconsin pay from the mid-range, and Justin Ahrens provided a 3-point stroke with a trio of made outside jumpers.
“I think that was probably as good as we've played offensively in our three-plus year against an elite defense,” Holtmann said. I just thought it was really efficient, it was really smart.”
Liddell led all scorers with 20 points to go along with seven boards in 32 minutes. Ahrens and Duane Washington Jr. – who had a team-high four assists but was 1-for-9 from the field – added nine points, and Towns and Young had eight points apiece. CJ Walker recorded an important eight points in his return performance after missing eight games with torn ligaments in his hand. Collectively, they shot 50.9 percent from the field, went 5-for-16 from behind the 3-point arc and had a 24-22 points-in-the-paint advantage against a team with more interior size.
Wisconsin, seemingly discombobulated all game, tried to shoot its way back into the game yet couldn’t hit enough from the outside. Even accounting for Ford’s late 3s, the Badgers shot 40.4 percent from the floor and were 7-for-28 from the outside.
“I think us jumping to a couple-possession lead there early was important because throughout the game, it puts pressure on those shots,” Holtmann said.
With that pressure as part of a well-rounded, well-executed game plan, Ohio State secured the bounce-back win. The Buckeyes have now won their last three games against top-15 opponents away from Columbus – then-No. 11 Rutgers, then-No. 14 Illinois and No. 10 Wisconsin – for the first time since they captured the national championship six decades ago.
The last time the Buckeyes beat the last three top-15 teams they faced in true road environments was, well, never. It hadn’t happened even once before. Not in the history of the program.
“I think objectively it just shows that we're a really good team,” Towns said. “But for us, we take it game by game. We're locked in. We know that when we go out on the court, we have the opportunity to win every game we play. That's kind of where we're coming from. Just locked in on executing.”