Cedric Russell entered Tuesday’s contest with three career points in a Buckeye uniform.
The Louisiana transfer guard doubled that in the final 2:32 of Ohio State’s 71-66 upset win over No. 1 Duke, scoring six points for the Buckeyes during a 12-0 run to close out the game and complete a double-digit comeback in the second half. Russell finished with 12 points on the night, which is more than the number of minutes he logged in the past two games combined for Ohio State.
“It was a bunch of emotions, but I didn’t give up on myself because at the end of the day I’m not a quitter, and that’s not what I came up here for,” Russell said after the game. “So just really trust in my work, trust in (God) and like I said, what God has for me, can’t no one stop. So just really keeping my faith and continue to work.”
Thought to be a jolt of instant offense for the Buckeyes in the absence of Duane Washington this season, Russell had gotten off to a slow start in scarlet and gray. Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said more than once in the preseason that scoring guard needed more time to acclimate to a step up in competition from the Sun Belt, and through his first four appearances as a Buckeye, that was evident.
Although Russell missed the second game of the season due to a death in the family, he didn’t score in any of his first three games as a Buckeye, didn’t get in the game at all against Xavier on Nov. 18, and had just three points when he finally hit a shot against Florida last Wednesday. But Russell finally found his rhythm against the Blue Devils, and after drilling a 3-pointer late in the first half, he poured in nine points in the second to help power the Buckeye comeback.
Ohio State trailed 43-30 at halftime, and when Duke maintained a double-digit lead through the first four minutes of the second half, an eventual Blue Devil may have seemed like the likeliest outcome. But following a quick 4-0 Duke run to extend the lead back to 57-47 with 11 minutes to play, Russell came up big for the Buckeyes with a 3-point make that cut Ohio State’s deficit down to single digits once again.
Sophomore forward Zed Key took it from there, scoring seven of the next 11 Ohio State points to keep the Buckeyes within five points of the Blue Devils in the final 3:31. Then, in a 66-61 ballgame with the clocking ticking under three minutes, Russell took over – and not just on one side of the floor.
“Ced, I think in a lot of ways – Ced and Zed – were the difference,” Holtmann said. “We need some production on the perimeter, but Cedric had a look in his eyes, he wanted to stay aggressive.”
At the 2:40 mark, E.J. Liddell drove the ball into the paint from the top of the floor for the Buckeyes, attracting the attention of four different Blue Devil defenders in the process. Wide open in the corner, Russell put both hands in the air and called for the ball. Liddell obliged him, but despite having a a relatively uncontested look at a three, Russell hesitated. Before the home crowd finished an audible groan at the potential missed opportunity, Russell reloaded, raised up and buried another three over Duke forward Wendell Moore, who lifted both hands in a frustrated shrug thereafter.
“When I caught it, I didn’t gather it all the way. My pinky was off of it, it was kind of behind the ball, so that’s why I hesitated,” Russell said. “And then once I gathered, he gave me enough space to get the shot off and get a clean look, so that’s just what I did. I was ready for it. I told E.J. coming out of the huddle, because those guys on his drives, they like to dig and double, so I was like, ‘If they dig, I’m there for you.’ And I made the shot.”
That shot made it a two-point game, and on the ensuing Duke possession, Russell drew a charge on Blue Devil star Paolo Banchero to regain possession for the Buckeyes. Russell got fouled again on the other end, and split a pair of free throws to bring Ohio State within one point of tying the game.
After that, Liddell gave Russell some assistance. The Illinois native knocked down two free throws to give the Buckeyes a lead at the 1:03 mark before making it a three-point game with a clutch fadeaway jumper with 15 seconds left on the clock. The Blue Devils blew their chance to tie it up on the next trip down, as Banchero missed a deep three long off the iron, and Russell came up with the board.
The fifth-year senior was fouled immediately as the crowd roared in jubilation, and Russell knocked down both free throws to ice the game for Ohio State.
“He’s slowly gotten a little bit better at understanding how we want to do things offensively,” Holtmann said. “He’s been aggressive, and again, he had a look in his eye. But I just think there’s a trust level I have to have with him, that we have to have with him. And while he didn’t play a ton down in Florida, the minutes that he had were pretty productive, so we went into this game saying, ‘Let’s give him a look,’ and I thought he answered the bell.”
For a Buckeye team in desperate need of offensive contributions outside of Liddell, Russell’s emergence could not have come at a better time for Ohio State. The flashes Russell showed may have been enough to earn him more playing time as soon as the Buckeyes’ next game, which just so happens to be another big one as Ohio State opens conference play with a road game at Penn State on Sunday.