Tanner Holden wasn’t even on the court when Bruce Thornton knocked down the first of two free throws to cut the Rutgers lead to two points with five seconds on the clock.
At that point, the Wright State transfer had only played six minutes in the second half and hadn’t scored a point all game. But Buckeye head coach Chris Holtmann wanted him on the floor for the final sequence.
The decision paid off.
Holden subbed in before Thornton’s second free throw, which also went down, and the latter committed an immediate foul on the inbounds pass to put Rutgers guard Caleb McConnell at the line on the other end. McConnell sunk the first and missed the second, giving Ohio State a chance to go the distance of the court to either tie things up or win the game in Columbus.
Brice Sensabaugh corralled the rebound and flipped the ball to Thornton, who dribbled into a Rutgers trap on the sideline – right next to Holtmann, squatting down in front of the scorers’ table. Thornton left his feet with two Scarlet Knights hounding him, but snuck a pass through to Holden before he came back down.
Holden caught it square to the basket with a jump stop at the coach’s boundary line and didn’t hesitate with just a fraction of a second left. His Hail Mary heave, easily 25 feet in distance, kissed the bottom of the back iron on its way to ripping the cords.
It ripped the top off the Schottenstein Center, too, as Holden’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave the Buckeyes a walk-off win at home over its first Big Ten opponent of the season. Holden was appropriately mobbed by teammates at midcourt after a shot he said he didn’t even see go through the net.
“I shot it and couldn't really see, because number three was in my way. But I just heard the crowd go crazy,” Holden said after Ohio State’s 67-66 win. “And then I celebrate after that, and then 15 guys are rushing me. So it was a crazy game.”
Holden will be remembered as the hero in Thursday night’s victory, and rightfully so. But Ohio State wouldn’t have been in a position to win if not for the efforts of Zed Key, who set a new career-high with 22 points on 9-for-12 shooting and tied another career-best mark with 14 rebounds.
Standing under the basket as Holden caught the ball, Key glanced at the clock and motioned for his teammate to shoot it. But Holden was way ahead of him. Perhaps Key has never moved faster on a basketball court than he did while sprinting after the Wheelersberg, Ohio, native after the shot went through.
“I almost passed out. I was yelling, I yelled too much,” Key said afterward. “I was down by the block and I couldn't rebound, the buzzer went off. So I just looked up in the air, and I was like, ‘Oh wow, that's going in.’ And it went in. I just ran. I was more tired running, chasing after him than the last possession. But it's a great shot and a great pass by Bruce and got the W.”
Key has a game-winner on his résumé in his own right, scoring the go-ahead bucket in the final seconds of last year’s season opener against Akron. But when asked where Thursday’s finish ranks among the most dramatic Key’s been a part of at Ohio State, there was no debate.
Ohio State held an 11-point lead late in the first half, but Rutgers flipped the momentum with a 9-0 run that took it to halftime only down two. The final 12:31 of action saw neither side hit more than two shots in a row without an answer from the other team. From 1:44 to 0:05, it was the Scarlet Knights holding onto a one-score lead as the Buckeyes had to play the possession game by sending Rutgers to the charity stripe.
“The kid, he's a gamer. I mean, he's made big shots his whole life, really.”– Chris Holtmann on Tanner Holden
Just when it looked like the game would slip away from Ohio State, Holden’s last-second magic bailed the Buckeyes out.
“The kid, he's a gamer. I mean, he's made big shots his whole life, really,” Holtmann said. “He's made big shots. I mean, he made I think a game-winning reception as a wide receiver in a state championship game. Like, he's just, he's a gamer. He's got to get better defensively against this level of physicality and athlete, and he’s really got to improve on that end. But man, I don't want to get into that too much tonight, because I'm just really happy for the kid. Really happy for him.”
Buzzer-beater aside, the first nine games haven’t exactly gone according to plan for the first-year Buckeye. After putting up 20.1 points per game for an NCAA Tournament team last year, albeit in the Horizon League, Holden entered Thursday averaging just five points in 16.9 minutes for the Buckeyes. Neither of those metrics will go up after the Rutgers win, as Holden finished with just three points in 15 minutes.
But Holden knew a decrease in productivity was possible when he came to Columbus, and he certainly wasn’t going to express any disappointment in the minutes after his first game-winning buzzer-beater since the fourth grade.
“I'm not frustrated. Before I ever entered the portal, I wrote a list down of what changes were gonna be, the pros and cons of leaving. And one of those things was maybe I play less,” Holden said. “It was one of the things, I just had to bite the bullet on that. So sometimes I'll play 20 minutes, and me and Coach Holtmann have had a lot of conversations. I think tonight is a perfect example just to stay ready. I don't think I played in the last four minutes. But Coach Holtmann called my name, sprinted up there, I was ready. … I'm not frustrated by anything. We got a win tonight, I'm happier than ever.”
Holden hasn’t had many big moments so far for the Buckeyes, but he made the most of one when he got it on Thursday, and it was the most memorable of any in an Ohio State game so far this season.
The shot wasn’t without controversy. While there was no question Holden got the shot off in time, he was standing out of bounds as Thornton began passing him the ball. Some may be skeptical about the notion that he fully established himself back in bounds before touching the ball, but not Holden.
“I was in,” Holden said. “No changing it now.”