Isaac Likekele Follows Cold Seven-Game Stretch With Season-Best Performance in Dominant Win Against Iowa

By Griffin Strom on January 21, 2023 at 8:24 pm
Isaac Likekele
Joseph Scheller/Columbus Dispatch

Ice was a fitting nickname for Isaac Likekele during the seven games that preceded Saturday.

After returning from his three-game absence from the program on Dec. 29, the Oklahoma State transfer was frozen cold on offense. Likekele averaged 1.4 points per game in that stretch and shot a dismal 26.3% from the floor. Given the offensive success enjoyed by Brice Sensabaugh during Likekele’s absence, the veteran was relegated to the bench for all but one of his first seven games back in action.

Before the Buckeyes’ matchup with Iowa, Likekele scored 10 combined points against Ohio State’s last seven opponents. He also hadn’t scored more than nine points in any one game this season, with the season-high of nine coming in the opener against Robert Morris. It had been nearly two months since Likekele had even scored five or more points for Ohio State.

But on Saturday, Ice caught fire.

Inserted in the starting lineup for the second time since the start of 2023, Likekele dropped a season-high 18 points, pulled down 10 rebounds and dished seven assists in a stellar all-around effort. Entering the weekend on a five-game losing streak, it was a performance Ohio State desperately needed to get back on track, and that’s precisely what Likekele and the Buckeyes did on Saturday. Ohio State halted its skid and stopped Iowa’s four-game winning streak in its tracks with a 93-77 win at home.

Even on a night that saw Brice Sensabaugh score a career-high 27 points on 10-for-12 shooting, Likekele might have been the team’s most valuable player.

“Some of it, I think is his break set him back a little bit. And I think I've been a little bit apprehensive to throw him in situations because some of it was I didn't know where he was at in terms of his mental space,” head coach Chris Holtmann said after the win. “So I take some of the blame for that. But that's the player – now obviously his numbers were phenomenal, as good a performance (as he's had) in so many ways, and on top of the fact that he's guarding a first-round draft pick– but that's kind of what we were hoping. 

“And I think you're not asking, obviously, for that kind of performance every night. But his impact needs to be significant for this group, and he needs to really commit himself these last two months just to enjoying his final two months of college basketball. And we need to rely on him more than I have. And that's on me.”

Likekele had seven points on 3-for-5 shooting in 14 minutes of action in the first half alone. He didn’t lose any steam in the final 20 minutes, scoring 11 points, six rebounds and five assists in the second half and finished with his best game of the season by far.

With the Buckeyes only leading by one in the opening couple minutes of the second half, Likekele kicked off what effectively served as the game-winning stretch for the Buckeyes. From 18:10 to 16:10, Ohio State went on a 9-0 run to take a double-digit lead. Likekele scored four of those nine points himself, and Iowa never cut the deficit below eight points after that.

Ohio State led 69-61 at the 8:09 mark, and the Hawkeyes might have been able to mount a more valiant comeback effort if not for another play by Likekele. The 6-foot-5 guard dished a no-look pass to Roddy Gayle in transition, and the true freshman brought the home crowd to a fever pitch with an emphatic two-handed dunk. The score put Ohio State back up 10, and all the momentum was with the Buckeyes.

“He was able to attack some matchups and get out in transition, which I thought was important,” Holtmann said. “And he's got to continue to work on his finishing. He can struggle at times to score the ball. That'll continue to be the case. But he needed to be a little more assertive, particularly in transition when he's at his best. And I just wanted him to be Isaac. And that's what I told him the day before the game. 'I just want you to be Isaac. We just need you to be that guy.' And he was certainly that and some.”

Likekele’s performance might have caught some spectators off guard, given his season stats leading up to Saturday’s contest, but Likekele himself was hardly surprised. After all, Likekele has five 20-point games under his belt as a college player (all at Oklahoma State), and scored at least 18 points on seven occasions before this weekend.

“It's not like it's nothing I haven't done before. And I say that completely humbly, glory to God for these talents that he's given me,” Likekele said. “But I'm in a new environment, new situation, new team. I'm just thankful, really, just as much as I've been having this year going on – first off, them just even letting me back and me just trying to find a rhythm. And these guys around me, all 15, 16 guys, they make it easy on me every day, just encouraging me and telling me just keep working. And that's all I've been doing. 

“And I know at some point everything is gonna show when it's time. I'm a firm believer that God has His time, and I've done nothing different. These past two weeks, past two days, I've done nothing different since the day I got here in June. Which is just work. And the work will show itself.”

Ohio State shot under 40% from the field in three straight games before Iowa. With Likekele leading a more aggressive effort from the start, the Buckeyes had the resurgent performance they were looking for. Ohio State hit 56.3% of its shots, its second-best mark of the season, and scored 20 more points than it had against any previous Big Ten opponent.

The difference in the Ohio State offense with Likekele providing substantial contributions was evident on Saturday. But Likekele said he wouldn’t necessarily force up more shots moving forward if he’s not called upon to do so.

A captain and general jack of all trades for the Buckeyes, Likekele said he’ll continue to do what the team needs him to give it the best chance to win. On Saturday, that was scoring the ball. Moving forward, though, it may not be.

Either way, Likekele showcased his ability to put the ball in the hole against a high-level Big Ten opponent on Saturday, and that alone could make Ohio State more dangerous as it moves forward.

“Like I told Coach (Holtmann) whenever I came back, whether it was five minutes, 30 minutes, regardless. Whatever the team is asking from me for that game, that's what I'm gonna try to do,” Likekele said. “So today, that's what it was. Next game, it could be something different. A player like me I don't just have a certain role for every single game. It's different for me. So I just got to see how the game is going, different things of that nature. 

“But today, I just felt like we really needed to get off to a quick start. And I felt like it was on us veterans. As captains, we haven't been good lately. And I felt like today, the captains, we really had to step up and take care of business. And that's what we did.”

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