Ohio State Leans on Defense, Proves It Can Win Ugly in 61-56 Victory Over Penn State

By Griffin Strom on January 16, 2022 at 4:23 pm
Kyle Young
© Doral Chenoweth/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

One score and Penn State had a chance.

Down five points to the Buckeyes with the clock ticking under 90 seconds to play at the Schottenstein Center, Nittany Lion guard Sam Sessoms drove left and into the paint to create some offense for his team. But Sessoms found none, as the help defense of Ohio State forward Kyle Young forced a turnover down low.

With the ball in his hands and his back on the ground, Young still had the wherewithal to call a timeout, and he knocked down a pair of free throws to put the Buckeyes up seven points just 20 seconds later to help seal the deal for Ohio State.

In a season that’s featured more than one game-winning shot for Ohio State, this time it was a defensive sequence that Chris Holtmann spotlighted as the most important of the game.

“It was the play of the game. It was the difference in a lot of ways,” Holtmann said after the 61-56 Ohio State win. “From that thing being a one-possession game, it was the play of the game. That’s why he’s so important. We need more guys to embrace that type of stuff.”

Both that play and its importance were indicative of the performance as a whole for the Buckeyes. 

They did not score a field goal in the final 5:07 of the game, and they shot just 38.6 percent from the floor. The 3-point line was nearly a nonfactor for Ohio State, which hit just three of its 12 attempts from deep. The Buckeyes even left 12 points on the board at the free-throw line in a contest that was decided by just five points.

Suffice to say Ohio State did not have it on offense, at least not in the manner it is accustomed to. Only, when the Buckeyes didn’t have it against Indiana on Jan. 6 – a 67-51 loss that stands as the only game in which Ohio State has scored fewer points than it did Sunday – they had no hope of pulling out a win.

That was far from the case against Penn State, as Ohio State showed it could get the job ugly, if necessary, and with a reliance on defense.

“We don’t take winning for granted because we know how hard it is to get (wins) in the Big Ten,” Ohio State guard Jamari Wheeler said after the game. “Big Ten is the best league, so every win’s gonna be ugly wins, hard wins, pretty wins, things like that. Just do whatever it takes to win, get the win. Because at the end of the day, that’s all we care about is the win. So no matter how it looks, at the end of the day, as long as we get the win we’re satisfied.”

Entering Sunday, Ohio State had been giving up north of 77 points to its opponents since returning from a 22-day COVID-19 pause through December. That’s 10 more points per game than it had been averaging in the 10 games prior to that break. In the past two games before Sunday, Ohio State had given up an average of 82.5, with Northwestern putting up 87 and Wisconsin tallying 78.

Defense was a focus against Penn State, and it paid dividends without a doubt. Penn State scored just 56 points against the Buckeyes, tied for its fewest of the season, and finished the game shooting 39.6 percent as a team. And that was only after a much improved second half from the Nittany Lions.

Penn State scored just 22 points in the opening 20 minutes, and shot 8-for-27 in the first half of play. That allowed Ohio State to secure a five-point lead at halftime, and the Buckeyes finished the game with the same advantage.

"I feel like it was our defensive connectedness," Ohio State guard Eugene Brown said. "The way we were able to lock in on the defensive end, get multiple stops in a row, string together a chain of stops, that allows us to get going on the offensive end. I feel like that really makes a difference in a game like this, where the scoring's not really going where it needs to be, so we can just fall back on our defense."

The Buckeyes won the rebounding battle 37-30, another key factor in the contest, and continued to display toughness and physicality by getting to the free-throw line 36 times on the afternoon. Sure, Ohio State’s misses from the charity stripe reached double digits, but the Buckeyes’ 24 makes were still three times more than what Penn State finished with.

Ohio State has shown it can win games with 3-point barrages and great offense this season, and it had already shown it can pull out close games. But as the Big Ten slog continues for the Buckeyes, it was an important step for the team to prove it can have an off night in a number of ways and still find a way to win with effort and defense.

“I’m proud of a lot of things here today. Our best defensive effort since Christmas, we’ve had some really poor ones,” Holtmann said. “I think we’ll get back to making shots, and the biggest thing we’ve got to be able to do is grow in our defensive effort, and this was a good step.”

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