Ohio State’s 75-72 Upset Loss To Oral Roberts Leaves Dark Cloud Over Once-Promising Season

By Colin Hass-Hill on March 19, 2021 at 8:37 pm
Duane Washington Jr.
Joshua Bickel – USA TODAY Sports

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – There was no watching the celebration. No sticking around to see it.

Ohio State’s players didn’t need to see any more of the action on Mackey Center’s court than they had to. Not after what they had just experienced.

They sidled back up the tunnel they entered the court from, changed clothes, got back on their bus and left. Rather than spending the weekend in Indianapolis as they planned, they’ll be back in Columbus by the time the second day of the NCAA tournament tips off.

Despite being a No. 2 seed, a team that came three points from a Big Ten tournament championship and ranked as a top-10 team by the AP poll, KenPom and just about everybody else, Ohio State couldn’t get out of the first round.

Oral Roberts, a No. 15 seed from Tulsa, Oklahoma, that barely won the Summit League tournament, proved to be too much.

The Golden Eagles led for nearly two-thirds of Friday's first-round game, withstood a late rush from the Buckeyes, fought back to force overtime, then pulled out a 75-72 victory in the final five minutes.

“They made some big-time plays in the second half and in overtime, and we didn't,” Ohio State point guard CJ Walker said. “We didn't take advantage of turnovers and missed shots in transition, things that we usually do to take advantage of. We just didn't. Obviously it hurts.”

And it hurts more after jubilation filled its locker room following its three wins in last week's conference tournament.

“It's most definitely challenging just because the Big Ten tournament last week, we played really well against some really good teams – Purdue, Illinois, Michigan,” Walker said. “We beat those teams, obviously not in a championship, but we played really good against top opponent teams. So coming into this game, it's most definitely mental over physical. So just kind of took it for granted thinking we could just come in here and win a game. Obviously in March you can't do that. Oral Roberts just took advantage of that, and they made the right plays at the right time.”

Ohio State left itself plenty of opportunities to close. Plenty of opportunities to pull away. Plenty of opportunities to look back on and wonder, “What if?”

Rarely does a team as seeded as highly as the Buckeyes out-shoot a No. 15 seed (43.3-35.6) and have a plus-17 rebounding margin yet lose. But that’s exactly what happened.

Oral Roberts missed 14 of 15 shots in the middle of the first half during a stretch that lasted nearly eight minutes. The Buckeyes, playing against the team with the lowest defensive efficiency rating in the NCAA Tournament, were only up by five points once Kevin Obanor knocked down a 3-pointer with 7:16 remaining in the first half. Had Ohio State managed to get something going offensively at that point, it could have put a significant gap between the two teams on the scoreboard. Instead, it entered halftime trailing by three.

In the second half alone, the Golden Eagles made 8-of-29 shots (27.6 percent) and went 4-for-17 from behind the arc (23.5 percent) while they were outrebounded 24-10. They made one shot from the field in the last five minutes and none after Max Abmas hit a jumper in the paint with 4:28 left.

And they still won. Somehow, some way, they pulled it off.

A large part of Ohio State’s inability to score more than 31 points went back to its 10 second-half turnovers, which were part of 16 turnovers throughout the 45-minute game. The Buckeyes turned it over eight times in the first 11 minutes of the half, with Musa Jallow, Duane Washington Jr. and E.J. Liddell each accounting for two.

“They weren't guarding some guys and we had some careless turnovers,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “I think the biggest thing is they were not guarding a couple of our guys and really crowding things and making driving lanes and post-ups difficult. And then we missed some open looks that we've made. I think that, combined with a couple of our sloppy, careless turnovers, contributed to a poor offensive half.”

He noted the Buckeyes did not have “a great start,” and nor did they have a great ending.

The Buckeyes appeared close to avoiding a disaster when E.J. Liddell knocked down one of his two foul shots with 2:34 remaining in regulation. His one free throw put his team up by four points, and they got the ball once more when Obanor missed a shot. But then the turnover bug bit them once more.

Washington turned it over first with 1:50 left, and after blocking a shot to regain possession, Liddell coughed it up 29 seconds later, leading to a foul on Obanor on the other end of the court. The rest of Ohio State’s offense in regulation consisted of Washington coming up empty on a layup, Liddell missing the first of one-and-one free throws, then Washington failing to connect on a step-back jump shot that could have won the game.

As Holtmann noted, it was a “critical stretch.” A stretch in which it put the ball in the hands of its two best players with a chance at avoiding an upset yet didn’t manage to do so.

“(Washington) had two clean looks,” Holtmann said. “He had two really clean looks there late that I believe he's going to make and that he's made a lot of. He had two really clean looks, one off an action out of a timeout, and the other one off of the offensive rebound there late. Maybe he was pressing there a little bit. This was Duane's first, along with other guys, this was their first real experience in the pressure of an NCAA tournament game. Maybe there's some different things I could've done better to kind of relax him because I thought he played uncharacteristically, maybe a little too wound up.”

Overtime quickly got away from the Buckeyes. Obanor scored five points in the first 100 seconds, and Abmas hit a jumper to put Oral Roberts up by six with 2:10 left. Liddell pulled his team within a point with 16 ticks on the clock, but two threes in the final few seconds – one by Justin Ahrens and the other by Washington – hit the rim and left Ohio State unable to send the game to double-overtime.

Washington and everybody else in scarlet and gray will have plenty of time to ruminate on what happened. 

The season’s over. Unexpectedly, it’s done.

Ohio State left Lucas Oil Stadium less than a week ago disappointed it didn't win a Big Ten championship yet pleased with its play. After what happened Friday, there’s no pleasure or satisfaction. A dark cloud of disappointment will follow this team back to Columbus and into the offseason after a once-promising season ended on the first day of the first round of the NCAA tournament.

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