It wasn’t over yet, but it sure was trending toward a Buckeye win in Piscataway.
With 3:48 to play in a game that had been razor-close to that point, a pair of Zed Key free throws put Ohio State up eight points to give the Buckeyes their largest lead of the night against Rutgers. With some decent free throw shooting and a few stops from then on out, Ohio State was set to escape New Jersey with perhaps its best Big Ten road win of the season.
Only Ohio State did not score a single point the rest of the way, and ultimately wound up in the loss column for the second time in the past three games.
Rutgers closed out the 66-64 win on a 10-0 run as senior guard Geo Baker – who finished with a game-high 25 points – scored eight of those by himself. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes missed all but one of their final 12 shots and each of their last seven.
“We just have to get better. We just have to finish games and play with a little more force offensively,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said after the game. “We’ve got to help them with that. We just didn’t play with enough force, I thought their activity bothered us there late. We’re gonna have to play with force on the road, we just weren’t able to finish plays when we needed to.”
Immediately following Key’s aforementioned free throws, a missed 3-pointer by Baker at the other end opened things up for Ohio State to gain a double-digit advantage. But a lapse in focus allowed the tide to begin to turn in the other direction, as E.J. Liddell turned the ball over. With the Buckeyes over the foul limit, Malaki Branham was whistled and Baker hit both ends of the one-and-one.
Now clinging onto a 64-58 lead with the clock ticking under three minutes, Ohio State had three cracks at answering the Scarlet Knights on the ensuing possession, but came up short on every attempt. Liddell had two straight layups sent back by 6-foot-11 Rutgers big man Clifford Omoruyi, and despite corralling another offensive rebound, Jamari Wheeler could not come up with a basket inside either.
“I thought they were just swarming the ball, really physical. I thought the momentum of the crowd (was a factor), and honestly I thought there were some fouls that just weren’t called,” Holtmann said. “At the end of the day, you gotta be able to play through some physicality.”
With 2:33 left, Baker hit a layup to tighten things up even more, and Branham became the victim of yet another Scarlet Knight block on the next trip down for Ohio State. This time the big defensive play came courtesy of senior forward Caleb McConnell, who came from behind to emphatically stuff the breakaway layup attempt off the backboard. Still in some kind of groove offensively, Baker hit a stepback jumper to put Rutgers down just two points with 2:03 to play.
The Rutgers defense came up big once again when the Buckeyes got it back, forcing a shot clock violation as the Buckeyes failed to hoist up a shot in time for the buzzer. Baker dished to Omoruyi for a dunk to tie things up 64-all at the 1:13 mark, and Ohio State was forced to take a timeout.
The extra ticks couldn’t help Ohio State put points on the board, though, as Branham’s subsequent midrange jumper fell well short of its mark and allowed Rutgers to take a lead on two Baker free throws at the other end with just 18 seconds left.
“Give Rutgers credit. You gotta give them credit for closing, making the block on the breakaway layup there and being able to get some stops there when they needed to,” Holtmann said. “Being able to finish and get to the line.”
Despite all of that, Ohio State still had a chance to tie or take the lead in the closing moments. Branham had the first chance, driving inside for a contested floater in the paint, but it was swatted out of bounds by Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr with 3.2 seconds remaining on the clock.
Next it was Ohio State 3-point specialist Justin Ahrens, who ran off a Kyle Young screen to get the ball on the inbounds pass for a chance to win it at the buzzer with a corner three. But that too was blocked, as Ahrens couldn’t get enough separation from Baker to find a high-percentage look.
In fewer than four minutes, the Buckeyes let slip what could have been an impressive statement in a hostile environment. Instead, Ohio State traded that in for a demoralizing loss and a continuation of the road woes that have haunted them over the past five weeks.
Holtmann had no delusions that his group had everything figured out when it comes to closing out Big Ten games on the road, but better execution in a couple sequences on either end of the ball might have allowed the Buckeyes to do so despite Rutgers’ best efforts.
“Winning on the road’s hard. You earn those each step of the way,” Holtmann said. “So I don’t think we’ve certainly mastered that, we just have to keep getting better and have to do some things better on both ends there.”