Ohio State had a banner day against St. Francis by multiple metrics.
The Buckeyes’ 96 points were their most since Dec. 7, 2019, when Ohio State hung 106 on Penn State at the Schott. The Buckeyes’ 20 assists were their most of the year. With six players scoring at least 10 points, Ohio State had two more double-digit scorers than it’s had in any game this season.
As impressive as that last stat is, it may be even more notable that four of the Buckeyes to finish in double figures were true freshmen. Chris Holtmann said in the preseason that Bruce Thornton, Brice Sensabaugh, Roddy Gayle Jr. and Felix Okpara would play significant roles for the Buckeyes all year, but never before has he received such heavy contributions from all four in a single game.
Just how rare a feat was it? The last time four true freshmen scored in double digits for the Buckeyes was eight years ago, when D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, Kam Williams and Jae’Sean Tate all put up at least 10 in a Dec. 22, 2014 win against Miami (Ohio).
But the way the Buckeyes have spoken about their freshmen class all season, nobody’s all that surprised.
“Coach Holtmann's doing a great job of keeping us all engaged. In practice we all work hard, we all compete. And this team is really deep. We got a lot of freshmen competing for spots, and a lot of freshmen who can play,” Tanner Holden said after the game. “So I think that just makes our team deeper. I think overall we have a lot of versatility. That's one thing I think everyone who's came up here has said. So I think that we can play with anybody. I think overall we're just a very, very solid team in all facets of the game.”
Sensabaugh dropped 15 points against the Red Flash, but that was to be expected. The 6-foot-6 wing was already tied for the team lead in points coming into the game, and he had already scored at least 15 points on four previous occasions for Ohio State.
Sensabaugh was relatively quiet early after a four-point night against Duke on Wednesday, but found his rhythm in the second half to score nine points on four shots. Two of those were 3-pointers, and one long-range connection resulted in a four-point play after a foul. All of Sensabaugh’s second-half points came amid a 24-2 Ohio State run that extended a 12-point Buckeye lead to 34 by the 5:17 mark.
If there was an unexpected performance of the four, it was Okpara’s double-double, as the first-year center posted career-highs in both points (10) and rebounds (12). Before Saturday, the 6-foot-11 big man had not scored more than four points or pulled down more than four boards in an Ohio State game.
“I think Felix's rebounding, his defense and his defensive awareness in the post has to get better and grow. But he's a really willing learner. He's a great listener,” Holtmann said. “He wants to get better. Listen, he's a freshman big. We're gonna see ups and downs with him all year. But it was good to see him have some success.”
In fact, Okpara had a double-double in the second half alone, scoring 10 points on 3-for-7 shooting – including a late 3-pointer – and corralling 10 boards in the final 20 minutes. Putting up points is hardly Okpara’s primary objective early in his college career, but he proved Saturday that he’ll certainly score them if given the opportunity.
“Defense, that's why I check in. Try to get more defensive rebounds, crash the glass on the offensive side. And for me, scoring right now is a bonus,” Okpara said. “I like to do the little stuff, like set screens, diving on the floor, mainly just defense.”
Behind Sensabaugh, Thornton was Ohio State’s second-leading scorer with 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting against St. Francis. Thronton’s emergence began in the Maui Invitational, but it’s unquestionably carried over in the two games since. The Buckeyes’ starting point guard has now scored at least 11 points in four of his past five games, and the Thornton had nine in the one game he didn’t.
Thornton’s efficiency on offense has impressed as well. In the past five games, Thornton’s shot 56% from the field and 58% from 3-point range.
“(Thornton is) really, really important. Steady is a great way of putting it. He is really steady,” Holtmann said. “I mean, just really mature and steady, makes good decisions. He's shooting it like we saw him shoot it all summer, where he's gonna make probably more open threes than he's gonna miss. We've seen that all summer with him based on his shooting numbers. And then he's just a really good decision-maker.”
Gayle added 12 points for the Buckeyes on 5-for-6 shooting and hit four of his five attempts during a 10-point effort in the second half. It was a career-high game for Gayle as well, as he had not scored more than nine points in any of his first seven college games. In the past four games before Saturday, Gayle totaled only five points with two scoreless games in that stretch.
But Holtmann said Gayle’s defense may be more valuable for the Buckeyes at this stage, and he’s confident he'll continue to see improvements in the freshman’s offensive repertoire over the course of the season.
“He's a two-way player. His defense is ahead of his offense right now, and that's fine. We need his defensive presence,” Holtmann said. “And he's not a bad offensive player, it's just he's still reading the game, stuff is fast. You saw the Duke play where he had it transition and turned it over. But man, he's a really, really good kid. And I think he's only going to get better in front of our eyes. I think we'll see with Roddy, if he has the right mindset, I really think we'll see growth in him come February. I really believe that.”
All four freshmen played at least 16 minutes in the blowout win, and Holtmann made it clear that won’t always be the case as Ohio State plays tougher opponents in the future. But as for the potential of the group, it was never more evident than in Saturday’s contest.
“Good just to see them play. Sometimes guys will play these kind of minutes, sometimes they won't play these kind of minutes,” Holtmann said. “So when they have these minutes in front of them, they obviously got to continue to grow and get better.”