There aren’t many nights when a team that shoots almost 20 percent worse than its opponent from the floor ends up the victor.
That was the case in Florida’s 71-68 win over the Buckeyes in Wednesday night’s Fort Myers Tip-Off championship game, when a game-winning buzzer-beater sank an Ohio State team that was up 10 points on the Gators with 13 minutes to play. A pull-up three from Tyree Appleby finished things off in dramatic fashion, but the final shot is hardly what Chris Holtmann will be pointing to in order to explain the loss upon rewatching the film with his team.
“I thought their pressure really bothered us,” head coach Chris Holtmann said following the game. “I thought they were really physical, physical on the ball, physical on drives. I thought defensively we were able to bother them when we could get our defense set, but giving them open-floor opportunities or offensive rebound opportunities was the difference, really, in the game. That and the number of times they got to the line.”
Perhaps most crucial to the Buckeye defeat was the foul trouble that plagued Ohio State in both halves. But turnovers, missed free throws, 3-point inaccuracy and an ongoing disparity on the offensive glass were all major factors in what ultimately doomed the Buckeyes against Florida.
A quick glance at the shooting numbers might lead to the conclusion that Florida, which entered the No. 23 team in the country and a slight betting favorite, was lucky to only be trailing by four points at halftime. The Gators shot the ball at a 31 percent clip, and hit just 1-of-9 attempts from 3-point range. But the Buckeyes, who shot 47.8 percent in the opening 20 minutes, turned the ball over 10 times in the first half, and hit only one more shot from three than their adversary.
“They’re as physical on the ball as any team we’ve played, for sure. They’re certainly as physical and athletic as any team we’ve played on the ball,” Holtmann said. “I think we’ve gotta be better, we’ve gotta be more ball-strong than what we were. We just had too many carless turnovers.
“I thought we could’ve attacked the press a little bit more than we did. We attacked it a few times, but I thought we could’ve been a little bit more aggressive. But that’s on me, they clearly didn’t get that message. They’re a physical team and it’s a physical game and it’s an area where we have to continue to get better.”
Also impactful was the fact that four Buckeyes, including Jamari Wheeler, Zed Key, Jimmy Sotos and Joey Brunk, all picked up two fouls in the first period. But the free throw disparity would not be nearly as pronounced until the second half. Florida shot 7-for-12 from the charity stripe in the first half, while the Buckeyes went to the line nine times and hit six.
Sure, E.J. Liddell wasn’t getting much help offensively, as the star forward had 13 points while no other Buckeye had more than five in the first 20 minutes. But that started to change in the second period.
Liddell didn’t score a point at all until nearly 12 minutes into the second half, and after 17 combined points from Wheeler, Key, Kyle Young, Meechie Johnson and Justin Ahrens in the first seven minutes, the Buckeyes had taken their largest lead of the game at 47-37.
That could’ve been the point at which Ohio State separated from its competitor and finally put a team away with room to spare at the end of the game. Instead, it was the point at which everything went awry for the Buckeyes.
Florida went on an 8-0 run to cut the Ohio State lead back down to two points, and fouls started to pile up on the Buckeyes thereafter. By the 9:03 mark, Young – who finished with the second-most points for Ohio State with 11 – had already fouled out of the ballgame. Holtmann was whistled for a technical on the same sequence, and Florida guard Phlandrous Fleming sank four free throws in a row in one extended trip to the line.
It was the second straight game in which Holtmann has been whistled for a technical.
“There’s a lot of things we have to do better, but give them credit. Obviously disappointed that I got a technical,” Holtmann said. “But you know, we’ll move forward.”
By the end of the game, Florida had taken 33 free throws – 13 more than Ohio State – and hit 23 of them. The Buckeyes shot 13-for-20, including 7-for-11 in the second half, and all four of their misses down the stretch proved vital in the contest.
Key went to the line with 47 seconds left with Ohio State up 67-66, but split the pair to give the Buckeyes a two-point edge in the final minute. Liddell got caught on a screen from Florida big man Colin Castleton on the ensuing Gator possession, which freed up Anthony Duruji to catch an alley oop dunk that knotted the score at 68-all.
Perhaps the buzzer-beater would have rendered even a made free throw by Key meaningless in the end, but it was far from the only self-inflicted wound for Ohio State.
With a two-point lead and possession of the ball with 3:40 to play, Johnson threw a bad post-entry pass to Liddell that was stolen and ran out for a transition bucket by the Gators at the other end. That score tied the game, and the turnover was one of 18 on the night by the Buckeyes.
“That’s gonna be part of their growth pattern here, it just is,” Holtmann said. “His paint decisions have to continue to grow, we gotta continue to help him with that. We were just running a clear-out situation. I trust him in those situations, I know he’s gonna get better in those situations, he’s had some really good stretches.”
Florida finished with 22 points off of turnovers, while Ohio State had just 10 off of 11 turnovers from the Gators. Even after a second half in which the Buckeyes shot 58.3 percent from the field, the Buckeyes were outscored by seven in the period.
During a brutal non-conference stretch that has seen Ohio State take on three AP Top 25 teams in six days, Holtmann said he’s seen plenty of positives from his roster. With fifth-ranked Duke awaiting the Buckeyes back in Columbus on Tuesday though, things won’t get much easier in the immediate future.
“I think we’ve got a pretty tough-minded group,” Holtmann said. “At least I feel like that. I think we can get better in that area, but I feel like we’ve made some progress. And I think in a game like this, that was a one or two or three-possession game for most of the game – both teams were right there – you had to be pretty tough-minded. I’ve seen that from our group.
“We have not been perfect. There’s a lot of things we have to continue to grow in and work on, but we’ve had some tough-mindedness to us.”