Sean McNeil could have been the hero.
With the game tied 66-all and the final minute ticking away, the West Virginia transfer pulled up at the end of the shot clock and drilled a contested 3-pointer with two defenders closing out on him. Ohio State took a three-point lead with a fraction over 40 seconds to play, and it looked like the Buckeyes could close it out.
Ohio State gave up a free-throw make to Zach Edey at the other end but got the ball back on the baseline up two points with 28 seconds to go. With the shot clock off, the Boilermakers would have to foul if they couldn’t get a quick turnover.
Only, they did force a turnover, and it was the turning point of the game.
I have a lot of questions. pic.twitter.com/75j67dvl8C— Josh Poloha (@JorshP) January 6, 2023
Justice Sueing received the inbounds pass from Bruce Thornton, drew a double team on a full-court press from Purdue and turned his gaze to the middle of the court. A sixth-year forward among several freshmen on the court for the Buckeyes, Sueing figured to possess the late-game poise that some of his younger counterparts may have lacked. But the veteran made the most costly error of the night, bouncing a pass off the hardwood and into the hands of Purdue’s Ethan Morton. It was intended for Bruce Thornton.
“The last play, just not a good pass from me,” Sueing said after the game. “Should've took my time maybe a little bit longer, but that was the first thing I saw open was Bruce. He happened to get a hand on it and ended up getting the possession. That's really all there is to it.”
The No. 1 team in the country didn’t squander the opportunity. After the timeout, Purdue hit second-leading scorer Fletcher Loyer on a clean look from the 3-point line, and the true freshman knocked it down to put the Boilermakers back up two with 11 seconds left.
It was over from there.
Ohio State didn’t even get a shot off on the final look of the night, a botched side-out play designed to give Brice Sensabaugh a clean look at the hoop for the win. The Boilermakers were all over the freshman, though, as Chris Holtmann said Purdue “bullied the screen” set by Felix Okpara to free him up.
Perhaps you could point to either (or both) execution errors as the cause for Ohio State’s late collapse. But the turnover may be more concerning because it wasn’t the first time the Buckeyes have fallen victim to a fullcourt press late in a razor-close contest.
In an overtime loss to North Carolina at Madison Square Garden last month, the Tar Heels dialed up a press that forced Ohio State into multiple late turnovers and led to more than one huge shot in the comeback. Ultimately, the Tar Heels took the game into overtime and got the jump on the Buckeyes from there, stealing a game that looked plenty winnable for the scarlet and gray.
Much like Thursday, minus the overtime period.
“That's not on Justice, that's on me. I gotta get him more comfortable in those situations. So that one's on me.”– Chris Holtmann on the late turnover
Holtmann didn’t place any blame on Sueing after the one-point defeat. Instead, he took accountability and said the Buckeyes must spend more time working against the press. After all, the Ohio State head coach stressed that as a primary point of emphasis after the North Carolina loss.
Following Thursday’s loss, it’s now been the difference – or at least of them – in losses to both last year’s national runner-up and the current No. 1 team in the country; wins that would look rather glamorous on the Buckeyes’ résumé come the end of the season.
“We got to get better at it. I got to get him more comfortable with that,” Holtmann said. “That's not on Justice, that's on me. I gotta get him more comfortable in those situations. So that one's on me.”
Before the turnover, Sueing was having a stellar night. He was the only Buckeye besides Sensabaugh, who led the way with 21 points, to crack double figures, finishing with 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting. He also added four boards and a pair of assists.
If you asked pundits what this matchup would hinge on ahead of time, most would’ve mentioned 7-foot-4 center Edey. Defending the towering Boilermaker big man was such a prominent talking point that few would’ve believed Ohio State could beat Purdue without a standout night from Zed Key. And in the end, Key logged just four minutes before leaving the game with a shoulder sprain, and Ohio State finished with its first home loss of the season.
But Edey didn’t dominate anyway. Freshman center Felix Okpara and the Buckeyes’ supporting cast limited the Big Ten’s leading scorer and rebounder well below his season scoring average Thursday, even if he scored 12 of his 16 points in the final 20 minutes while Purdue came back from a first-half deficit.
In totality, turnovers weren’t the issue either. Ohio State only coughed the ball up seven times all game and just three times in the second half, while Purdue had twice as many on the night.
But the timing of Sueing’s giveaway and how it came about can be construed as recurring problems for an Ohio State team that’s found itself in a litany of down-to-the-wire affairs through its first 14 games.
For both the immediate future and down the stretch of the season, learning from those moments and playing more poised under late-game pressure will go a long way in determining the upper-bound limits for the Buckeyes.