Each interviewed separately in the halls of the Cintas Center, three Buckeyes came to the same conclusion when diagnosing what went wrong in Ohio State’s first loss of the season.
Buckeye head coach Chris Holtmann, freshman guard Meechie Johnson and junior forward E.J. Liddell all cited an absence of toughness in Ohio State’s effort during a 71-65 loss on the road at Xavier. On its own, that word won’t necessarily explain the full extent of the Buckeyes’ shortcomings, and there were many on Thursday. But it is applicable to several trends that led to Ohio State’s demise in Cincinnati.
“We just got a lot of new guys on this team, they have to understand they got to be tough, because it’s like us against the world in that situation and environment,” Liddell said after the game. “We got to create our own energy, but we just got to be tougher; they were taking it to our chins, taking it through our chest. I just feel like they were playing harder than us for the majority of the game.”
Defensively in the final three minutes, the Buckeyes were neither firm nor physical enough with star Musketeer guard Paul Scruggs to stop him from scoring at the rim on three different drives to the hoop. Each Scruggs score kept Xavier up two possessions in the homestretch of a single-digit game, and two of them answered what could have been critical Buckeye baskets if Ohio State was to complete its comeback.
“They just out-toughed us on a lot of plays,” Johnson said. “Rebounding, they just wanted it more at times. In that second half, it wasn’t a time that we got consistent stops, and that hurt us.”
The final Scruggs bucket may have been the encapsulation of what Holtmann and company felt Ohio State didn’t have enough of on Thursday. The fifth-year veteran knifed into the paint once again, raised up over Liddell – who had already blocked eight shots by that point – and powered in a left-handed dunk straight through the Buckeyes’ star forward to give the Musketeers a five-point lead with 30 seconds to play.
“He’s a good player. He’s carrying the Xavier team, he’s been doing it for a long time. But I just feel like we got to be tougher,” Liddell said. “He can’t get three layups in a row, he took it straight down our throat. He got down the lane and dunked on me, honestly. So we just got to be a lot tougher.”
Even so, Ohio State had another chance to make things interesting thereafter. Down 69-65, Johnson crossed the halfcourt line with 14 seconds left, crossed his man over at the 3-point line and got to the rim for a layup with just two dribbles. With a make, Ohio State could’ve fouled with a chance to get the ball back down three points in the event of a single Xavier miss. Instead, Johnson couldn’t finish through minimal contact at the hoop.
“Things are gonna get tough, we just gotta keep fighting through it. Do the simple things, make the simple plays, don’t play for fouls,” Liddell said. “Just finish strong, because these type of games, they’re not gonna call it. It’s us against the world.”
Ohio State actually had a second chance at the same scenario on the very next play, as a jump ball after the Johnson miss gave the Buckeyes possession on the baseline with 7.4 seconds left. But Xavier played tougher once more as Scruggs got in front of Liddell to steal the ball on the inbounds to snuff out Ohio State’s dwindling hopes altogether.
For all of the sequences Ohio State likely wishes it had back in the second half, it still might have done enough to win the game if not for the hole the Buckeyes dug themselves early on.
Ohio State shot 33.3 percent from the field and from the 3-point line in the first half. In the second, those percentages jumped to nearly 42 from both areas of the floor. The Buckeyes turned the ball over nine times in the first half but limited the giveaways to four in the final 20 minutes.
Holtmann said multiple times that rebounding was what ultimately doomed the Buckeyes against Xavier, but Ohio State was only outrebounded 21-19 in the second half. It was the first half in which the Buckeyes were edged out 22-16 on the boards.
Ohio State got to the free throw line just three times in the first half, but improved that mark to 10 attempts in the second period of play.
Even Liddell, who finished with a game-high 17 points on the night, struggled in the first half, scoring just four points on 2-for-7 shooting. All Buckeyes not named Johnson or Malaki Branham – two freshmen guards – combined to score just 10 points in a 26-point first half for the Buckeyes.
There’s no doubt the atmosphere of the game was a factor in the loss as well. After a COVID-19 plagued 2020-21 season, Ohio State had not played a true road game since the March 8, 2020 Michigan State contest that ended up being the final one of that season. The hostility was palpable in Cincinnati on Thursday, and the Buckeyes said as much after the game.
Student turnout at Xavier is impressive with a long way still to go until tip pic.twitter.com/PEmx8cfPnt— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) November 18, 2021
“We came to shootaround and there were 250 students greeting us in a really friendly way on the way in,” Holtmann said. “So listen, that’s good for our team. Again, it’s good for college basketball. Doesn’t feel good right now, feels terrible. But I’m glad we were a part of it, I’m glad our young guys got to experience this environment, because hopefully it will prepare us more for what our league is, which is, I think, some of the best environments in all of college basketball.”
Liddell said the Buckeyes knew what they were in for when they came to Cincinnati on Thursday, but playing in such a setting will still take some getting used to moving forward.
“We knew what to expect when we came in here,” Liddell said. “I guess they have bad blood, both of us do. We knew what to expect. First time for a lot of young guys, my first time since probably two years ago, Michigan State. So this was a different environment, we just got to learn and keep moving forward.”
Given the caliber of opponent and the early stage of the season, the Buckeyes’ first defeat was not without silver linings and positive takeaways. However, it’s clear Ohio State has plenty of figuring out to do before it can fulfill its potential this year.
“I just think we’ve got to focus in on a few things, rebounding being one of them. Our ability to play with force has to be better,” Holtmann said. “You do take away from a game like this our ability to climb back in it to get ourselves within one possession, to get some really quality looks down the stretch I thought was a really good thing and a positive we can take from it.
“But obviously a lot of things we got to do better.”