Buckeye Bench Gets Confidence Boost with Big Performance in IUPUI Blowout

By Griffin Strom on January 19, 2022 at 8:35 am
Jimmy Sotos
Joseph Maiorana – USA TODAY Sports

One ought not mistake Ohio State’s results against one of the nation’s worst teams for particularly meaningful revelations.

But if a collection of typically bench-ridden Buckeyes were searching for a reason to feel good about themselves amid the inherent struggles of the Big Ten slog, they might have found a few during Tuesday night’s beatdown of the IUPUI Jaguars.

Given a spotlight showcase with more minutes than usual, Ohio State’s bench players combined to score 48 of the Buckeyes’ 83 points in the 46-point demolition job, and there was more than one standout among the crew.

Sophomore guard Eugene Brown had a career night scoring the ball, pouring in 14 points before all was said and done, and Louisiana transfer Cedric Russell tied his season-high mark of 12 points against the Jaguars. Jimmy Sotos finished with seven points and nine assists, his most in both categories as a Buckeye, and big man Joey Brunk showed a decent account of himself as well in the most minutes he’s played since mid-November (13).

“I thought Jimmy had a good practice yesterday, he’s had good practices, played well. I thought Joey Brunk did some really good things, Cedric did some good things,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said after the game. “In this era of COVID, you’re gonna need everybody at any time, and that’s as much as anything. You just know you’re gonna need guys. You can see it in practice, but they feel differently when they do it in games, and it gives them a different level of confidence. … I think this one was important for those reasons.”

Brown’s performance stuck out for the Buckeyes not only because he led the team in scoring, hitting 4-for-6 shots and 5-of-6 free throws, but also because he started the second half in place of senior forward Justin Ahrens. While Ahrens’ shooting slump continued, as the Buckeye captain hit just 1-for-5 shots from 3-point range Tuesday, Brown was much more impressive on both ends of the floor in an increased role.

“I thought his play was good and something he can continue to build upon,” Holtmann said. “He’s got to embrace the idea of being a guy that can guard multiple positions and be really good and detailed on that end and play with great effort and rebound the ball and then make open shots. He doesn’t need to hunt shots on this team, because we have enough offensive weapons. But he’s gotta be a great cutter offensively and embrace what we’re asking defensively.

“He’s got good length, he’s got a big body, he’s got a physicality to him. He’s gotta take care of the ball. When he’s struggled, he’s not always taken care of the ball. He did bring a real physicality that we needed. His ability to get on the glass is really important for our team.”

Russell called Brown “the definition of a glue guy,” and Sotos agreed with that assessment.

“Gene’s very versatile, he can guard one through five, he’s very active on offense, cutting, rebounding, keeping possessions alive,” Sotos said. “He makes stuff happen out there, so whenever Gene’s in, he’s always bringing energy, giving his full effort and just making stuff happen out there.”

Russell was an offensive spark plug as well for the Buckeyes, knocking down 4-of-5 3-point attempts to equal his highest-scoring night of his Ohio State career. Russell’s 22 minutes more than doubled his season average, and were the most he’s received in any game this year.

Holtmann liked what he saw from Russell offensively, but said the key to getting him in the mix more regularly against higher-caliber competition hinges on what he does on the other end.

“I just think he’s gotta continue to be really committed defensively to how we play, he’s gotta really commit himself on that end, and he’s gotta be ready when his number’s called,” Holtmann said. “I thought he had good aggressiveness tonight, a good pop to him. Listen, he’s played well in stretches in important games. In our Wisconsin win he was critical. Obviously everybody knows about the Duke game, but those two games he was really important for us.”

Sotos took full advantage of the uptick in minutes he received late, scoring five of his seven points and dishing six of his nine assists in the second half. One of those assists went to senior forward Harrison Hookfin, who scored his first basket of the season just two days after he was placed on scholarship.

On a night of feel-good moments for some of the Buckeyes’ unsung heroes, Hookfin’s late layup might have been chief among them.

“Our guys love that. I thought our guys were wanting him to hunt a shot,” Holtmann said. “It’s been a good week for Harrison Hookfin. It’s been a good week.”

Holtmann acknowledged that IUPUI is a program undergoing a “complete” rebuild this season, and it was clear the Jaguars aren’t comparable to the competition Ohio State will continue to see in the Big Ten starting on Saturday against Nebraska. But gaining a little momentum isn’t a bad thing, especially for a group of players that don’t always have the green light to open up their full arsenal on a nightly basis.

"We had to run parts of our offense that we had not run all year. That's one takeaway," Holtmann said. "And then looking at different combinations, getting guys that had not had as much game repetition, getting them game repetition. All those things."

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