Chris Holtmann Says Ohio State Wanted the Ball in the Hands of “Gutsy” Meechie Johnson For Game-Winning 3-Pointer

By Griffin Strom on November 22, 2021 at 10:32 pm
Meechie Johnson Jr.
Matt Pendleton – USA TODAY Sports

Chris Holtmann could’ve called timeout.

With two left in his pocket and just 10 seconds remaining when the ball crossed halfcourt in a tie game, it’s what most viewers likely assumed the Ohio State head coach would do in order to draw up a play for a last-second look for the win.

Instead, Meechie Johnson called game.

The final sequence worked out almost exactly how Holtmann wanted it to anyway. Johnson, who brought the ball up after Seton Hall tied the game up 76-all on a transition layup, passed it to Kyle Young on the wing and went to set a screen on E.J. Liddell’s man at the top of the floor. Liddell dove to the hoop, attracting help from Johnson’s defender. The Cleveland native popped back out to the 3-point line for a wide open look a good five feet behind the arc.

The shot spun around the inside of the rim and fell through the bottom of the net, and with 2.3 seconds left on the clock, Johnson had nailed the game-winner for the Buckeyes.

“We knew exactly what we were gonna run if we had the last shot down one or tied,” Holtmann said after the 79-76 win over Seton Hall at the Fort Myers Tip-Off in Florida. “It took us a little while to get into it, which was a concern for me, but I just wanted it in a couple guys’ hands; Meechie being one of them. So we knew exactly what we were gonna run. I did not want to call timeout.” 

But why Johnson? The freshman had hit just one shot from the floor all night for the Buckeyes to that point, and had missed his last two attempts before the final play. In a tie game, the obvious choice to take the last shot would be Liddell, who had already poured in 28 points to lead all Buckeyes.

Even if pounding the ball inside often proves challenging in a late-game scenario, Justin Ahrens was hot from three all game, having scored 17 points on 5-for-8 from deep by that point. Ahrens was out of the game on the play, but a timeout could have remedied that if Holtmann wanted his purest shooter in the lineup.

But Holtmann trusted Johnson, and it wasn’t the first time he’s put the ball in the hands of an underclassman at the end of a razor-close game this season. Holtmann credited the calm demeanor of Malaki Branham when the freshman guard found sophomore forward Zed Key for a game-winning layup in the Buckeyes’ season opener against Akron, and Holtmann said he saw a similar quality in Johnson on Monday.

“He’s gutsy. He’s not afraid of the moment. I think you’re always looking for that for guys late,” Holtmann said. “It’s interesting, they just said on the radio – which, it’s the first time in my career – five games in, we’ve had two last-possession wins, and freshmen and sophomores have been involved in both of them. That’s the first time that’s ever happened.”

It may be easy to forget given the shot he hit on the ensuing possession, but Johnson nearly cost the Buckeyes the game just one play prior to hitting the game-winner. Ohio State had a two-point lead when Liddell got an offensive rebound on his own miss with 24 seconds to go, and the Buckeyes’ star forward threw a cross-court pass to Johnson on the wing. Perhaps an ill-advised pass, it was still a catchable one, but it slipped out of Johnson’s fingers to allow a Seton Hall steal and fast break bucket to tie the game.

Holtmann knows he may have to take the good with the bad this season, and particularly with youth at more than one key position while senior captain Justice Sueing is sidelined with injury.

“It’s not gonna be a straight line, there’s gonna be ups and downs with them. What I’ve been pleased with Meechie is I think his attitude and approach has been what you see in good players who get better,” Holtmann said. “As long as I’ve been doing this right now, players that come to work, they don’t worry about anything else, they don’t worry about anything on the outside, they ignore any type of noise, they just come to work and get better, they have the right attitude, they typically will improve as the season goes on. 

“The ones that are worried about other stuff don’t. I’m proud of him right now. To this point, he’s really been good with that.”

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