Ohio State almost had enough to upset No. 6 Purdue on the road on Sunday.
But too many key contributors failed to give the Buckeyes enough of a boost to take them over the top in the 81-78 loss to the Boilermakers.
For the most part, Ohio State’s stars played their role. Despite a shaky performance for much of the day, E.J. Liddell finished with 20 points, and Malaki Branham – who is still growing into a star – had the exact same total. Both were instrumental late in a second-half comeback that saw the Buckeyes go from down 20 to tied up with Purdue in the final 14 minutes.
"Certainly some guys need to play better. We need to help them, as coaches, play better." – Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann
The Buckeyes even received the benefit of some unexpected production from a couple of bench players, as Cedric Russell and Eugene Brown combined to score 18 points, with all but two of those coming in the second half.
The aforementioned four players scored 41 of Ohio State’s 48 second-half points during the Buckeyes’ frenzied comeback, but the list of players that put up the other seven may be a bit worrisome for the scarlet and gray. Zed Key, Jamari Wheeler, Justin Ahrens, Meechie Johnson and Kyle Young – all starters for the Buckeyes at one point or another this season – went a collective 2-for-7 in the final 20 minutes, tallying just three rebounds and three assists.
“We expect a lot of E.J., Kyle and those guys. They can be even better, and for us to win on the road, they need to be even better in some areas,” Chris Holtmann said after the loss. “We have to coach them and continue to challenge them in that. But (Liddell) was fantastic making those shots late, I wanted him to be even a little bit more aggressive throughout the game. But a couple key plays where we didn’t get to the glass like we needed to on defense, that’s what will stick with me.”
Key’s statline was most underwhelming of all, as the Buckeyes' starting five tallied just one point, one rebound and four fouls in 12 minutes against Purdue. At 6-foot-8, Key was tasked with the difficult challenge of matching up with 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey defensively, which led to his high foul count and low minute total, but zero shot attempts for the team’s third-leading scorer was perplexing nonetheless.
Ahrens came off the bench for the first time all season for Ohio State in a decision that was likely fueled by the 3-point specialist’s ongoing shooting slump. Ahrens entered the game shooting just 21 percent from three in his last eight, and in 12 minutes Sunday – his fewest of the season – Ahrens went 1-for-4 from downtown. Ahrens played just two minutes in the second half.
In place of Ahrens, freshman guard Meechie Johnson got his second straight start for the Buckeyes, but his performance was less than memorable. Johnson shot 1-for-5 from the field and dished just one assist, and he is now just 2-for-12 shooting in his last two games since returning from a facial fracture and concussion.
Wheeler’s off day may have been most explainable, as the Penn State transfer guard is still recovering from a foot injury that forced him to sit out of Thursday's matchup with Minnesota. But that doesn’t make his two-point, two-assist afternoon in 24 minutes against the Boilermakers look all that much better.
Young hit a big three late as the Buckeyes continued to close the gap on Purdue, but that shot provided his only points of the second half. Young hit just three of his 10 shot attempts for the game, missing 3-of-4 3-pointers, and he finished the game with just two rebounds.
In a game that the Ohio State coaching staff said would be won or lost on the glass, the primary Buckeye bigs (Liddell, Key and Young) combined for just six rebounds, with Joey Brunk adding another three. Purdue snatched up 15 offensive boards, tied for the most Ohio State has allowed all season, and that led to 18 second-chance points for the Boilermakers.
“I thought our bench guys were pretty good. I thought Gene and Cedric were fantastic,” Holtmann said. “I thought Joey gave us a really good lift, just with his physicality. Certainly some guys need to play better. We need to help them, as coaches, play better. But those guys gave us a great lift.”
As mentioned with Ahrens, 3-point shooting has been an issue for the Buckeyes as well as of late. Ohio State shot just 31 percent from behind the line on Sunday, and shot the ball worse than 26 percent from 3-point range in three of the four games before that. Prior to hitting four of its final five 3-point attempts against the Boilermakers, Ohio State was just 5-for-24.
“We had some really good looks at three early,” Holtmann said. “When we beat them in the Big Ten Tournament, as you guys recall, Kyle had four threes in the first half, and you do have to be able to draw their bigs away. I thought we had some great looks, we just didn’t knock them down.”
On the bright side for the Buckeyes, they still almost pulled off a win over a top-10 team in the country in a vaunted road environment even with subpar performances from several key players. But ‘almost’ doesn’t mean much when it comes to the pursuit of Big Ten wins, which is what Ohio State is hunting in the final five weeks of regular season play.