Somehow, some way, Ohio State needed a spark. A little more than five minutes into the second half Thursday night at the Bryce Jordan Center, a 47-43 lead had turned into a 59-51 deficit. Layups from E.J. Liddell and Musa Jallow were the Buckeyes’ only points while Penn State continued its torrid start by scoring 16 points during the stretch.
CJ Walker didn’t panic, though. He just made a play.
With the shot clock dwindling, he pulled up and launched a 3-pointer, draining it to avoid going down double-digits. Fourteen seconds later, Sam Sessoms answered with a layup. Walker didn’t blink then, and he didn’t blink when he subsequently hoisted and missed a triple.
“I've been in college basketball for a long time,” said Walker, a fifth-year guard. “The game is full of runs.”
Within a half-minute, he was racing back up the court with the ball in his hands, this time getting fouled in transition. Walker couldn’t have known it at the time, but his play in those moments sparked what ultimately became a 15-0 run that swung the game in Ohio State’s favor and allowed his team to leave State College, Pennsylvania, with a 92-82 victory and enter the weekend with seven straight wins.
Duane Washington Jr. muscled up a shot at the right block through contact, converting an and-one in the paint. Walker tied the game up at 61-61 with a layup in transition, and Washington converted a four-point play to put the fourth-ranked Buckeyes up by four. An E.J. Liddell free throw and Gene Brown 3 finished off the run to give them a 69-61 edge with 9:40 remaining.
Holtmann has often talked in the past about desiring an old roster featuring upperclassman guards. He hopes to have an assembly line of veterans for the foreseeable future on whom he can rely late in tough games, and Thursday’s game was a prime example as to why.
Walker and Washington – a redshirt senior and a junior – settled things down, understood how to respond when Penn State made a run they anticipated and made the requisite plays to put their team back in the lead. They made tough shots, made smart decisions and didn’t panic.
“Having older guards is really, really important because they've been through a lot of these moments,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “Those guys are fearless, too. It's how they play. It's who they are. They're fearless. But they also understand what winning possessions late looks like. And sometimes younger guards don't understand what winning possessions late look like. I think our older guys do at this point, and that just comes from being a part of a lot of games that are close, and hopefully winning your share.”
The nation’s top three teams feature some ridiculous talents in the backcourt. Gonzaga rides with Jalen Suggs, a five-star freshman exceeding expectations who’s a projected top-five NBA draft pick. Baylor relies heavily on Jared Butler, a junior who has played his way into the National Player of the Year conversation. Even Michigan has Franz Wagner, a likely first-round NBA draft selection later this year.
Washington and Walker don’t have the pedigree of Suggs. They don’t have the production of Butler. They don’t have the measurables that make Wagner such an enticing prospect at the next level.
The duo, however, has won big games, hit big shots and won’t flinch. Those two are the kinds of veteran guards who teams can win with when the postseason rolls around, especially if they continue on this upward trajectory.
Washington scored 21 points on 6-of-9 shooting against Penn State, going 4-for-5 from 3 and 5-of-5 at the free-throw line. Walker managed 13 points and seven assists compared to only one turnover. Together, they combined to go 10-for-16 to score 34 points. Any coach will take that kind of efficiency from their backcourt, especially when it comes to Washington.
The third-year guard from Grand Rapids, Michigan, has battled well-publicized bouts of inconsistency throughout his career, and he’s still shooting only 39.7 percent on the season. But he has now scored in double figures while shooting 40 percent or better in four straight games. That has only happened once before in his collegiate career – in early-to-late January.
“He's gotten better in that area,” Holtmann said. “There are stretches where he struggles, right? He struggles with his efficiency. He had a couple twos that I didn't love early in the second half, and I made that clear to him. But I've loved his efficiency here of late.”
Walker, too, has trended in a positive direction.
“CJ's done a great job,” Holtmann said. “He was tremendous tonight. Tremendous. I thought he really, for the most part, with the exception of a couple fouls, I thought just he was tremendous on both ends.”
The point guard’s right hand never fully healed when he returned from a two-and-a-half-week break due to torn ligaments, even though he says it’s “getting a lot better.” He now comes off the bench, playing with three of his fingers taped together. Yet, he has managed to become more efficient as a scorer and distributor than the 11 pre-injury games, effectively being what Holtmann sees as a sixth starter.
Walker has now scored double figures in four of the past five games, recording 25 assists and eight turnovers. Thursday evening, he played one of his most well-rounded games, finding open teammates, going coast to coast, hitting 3s and mid-range looks.
“The Big Ten, it gets tough,” Walker said. “You've just got to make it over that hump, and I feel like a lot of teams kind of forget what my capabilities are on the offensive end and the defensive end. I just take advantage of it. I've just been really confident.”
He continued: “Toward the end of the season, I just want to win.”
Of course, the two guards weren’t the sole reasons for winning on Friday. Liddell led the team with 23 points, showing again why he’s one of the Big Ten’s premier players. Musa Jallow played 24 minutes off the bench largely for defensive purposes. Justin Ahrens drained a trio of threes, and Ohio State won the rebounding battle, 32-29.
Without Walker and Washington, though, the Buckeyes might not have gone into the weekend quite so pleased. With Liddell in foul trouble, Holtmann needed the vets in the backcourt to get a game seemingly headed in the wrong direction back on track, and they made it happen.