Late-Game Execution Allowed Ohio State to Beat Penn State After Ugly Second Half Put Result In Doubt

By Colin Hass-Hill on January 27, 2021 at 11:57 pm
E.J. Liddell
Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

A year ago, Kaleb Wesson said it best: “A win is a win in the Ten.”

He’s gone, but the point remains the same. As long as the Big Ten remains college basketball’s deepest conference, nobody on Ohio State’s roster will spend too much time bemoaning the ugliness of a game if the result is the one the team wants. It was true last season, and it’s still the case this season.

What went down at the Schottenstein Center on Wednesday night won’t get remembered as the most pleasant and satisfying win in Buckeyes basketball history. Far from it, in fact. But, the 83-79 victory against Penn State was a win, and for a while that appeared in doubt.

Ohio State trailed the Nittany Lions by eight points with eight minutes remaining, five points with five minutes remaining and two points with two minutes remaining. Chris Holtmann’s team turned the ball over a season-high 17 times, its senior leaders CJ Walker and Kyle Young fouled out and it allowed the third-most points it's allowed all season.

But it did win. And for that reason, there was – as Holtmann described it – a “really upbeat locker room” after the game.

“Everyone was excited,” Justice Sueing said. “It's hard to win in the Ten. It's hard to win, period, in college basketball. So we celebrate every win, regardless of if it's by a couple points like tonight or if it was by 20 or 30. We always are looking to improve, of course, but as long as we come out with the win today as we did, coach is happy, we're happy. We're going to just continue to learn from our mistakes.”

Correcting the mistakes, of course, will be as important to the long-term success of this team as anything else coming out of this game. And when they have their Thursday film session, the players might not particularly enjoy it. Holtmann is sure to have some, uh, thoughts. 

The Buckeyes were out of sorts at times defensively, for which Holtmann took the blame. Their shakiness with the ball on offense led to 23 Penn State points off turnovers compared to just four from the home squad. End-of-half turnovers by Justice Sueing and Meechie Johnson turned what might’ve ended up as a 10-point halftime lead into a four-point lead at the break.

Against a better team, those miscues could have sunk Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ 32 percent shooting from 3-point range didn’t help matters. With all of that put together, it’s understandable Penn State went on a 38-21 run between the last two minutes of the first half and first 12 minutes of the second half.

Foul trouble exacerbated the issues. 

Young and Walker both had four fouls with 15 minutes remaining, and E.J. Liddell was at three fouls. Liddell managed to avoid dire foul trouble, but Young fouled out with 5:01 remaining and Walker followed him with a fifth foul a minute-and-a-half later. Holtmann said he made a mistake putting Young into the game with four fouls and 10 minutes left – “that one again was my fault” – because the team needed his energy and defense.

Their early exits led to a lineup of Duane Washington Jr., Sueing, Justin Ahrens, Musa Jallow and Liddell with a dose of Seth Towns down the stretch.

“It was a really tightly-called game,” Holtmann said. “A lot of fouls on our part. We've just got to do that better. It impacted what our rotation looked like. We had some odd rotations out there. I just think in general we just weren't connected enough defensively tonight. Some of that had to do with the fact that, listen, we still have a lot of new guys that we're implementing into our rotation and we have some errors defensively – and offensive for that matter. We just do. I think we're still working through some of that stuff. When we can have a consistent lineup of kind of older, returning guys, at times we look a little smoother. It was a little bit disjointed tonight with that.”

Far from perfect. Far from the game Holtmann hoped to see unfold.

Late-game execution, however, managed to mask stretches of poor play and ultimately allowed Ohio State to avoid an upset.

A Liddell bucket cut Penn State's long-held lead to three with 4:42 remaining, and Duane Washington Jr.'s free throws the next possession trimmed it to one point. A layup from Liddell a minute later gave the Buckeyes a one-point lead. Along that stretch of play, the Nittany Lions didn't score a point until Myles Dread, who entered the night as a game-time decision due to injury, put Penn State back ahead with a 3-pointer.

Washington, who up until that point was 1-for-8 from deep, splashed a triple to put Ohio State back up by one. Seth Lundy came right down the court and banged another 3 to give the Nittany Lions the lead once more.

To answer, the Buckeyes went to Justice Sueing, who got to the line to tie it up.

“It was all about staying together,” Liddell said. “I felt like we stayed together to finish the game.”

Expecting Lundy – who scored 26 points – to take the next shot, Sueing managed to get his hands on the ball to knock it away and get the ball back in his team’s possession. He poked five steals, tying a career-high.

Liddell, the team’s leading scorer with 20 points, subsequently drew a foul and knocked down a pair of free throws to put Ohio State up by two.

“We met this morning as an offensive staff and talked about some ways where if it got tight late, we could utilize (Liddell),” Holtmann said. “He really answered the bell with some of those areas. It was good to see. I was really, really proud of him. And obviously our team needed it. He made some critical free throws, too.”

As Liddell put it, he “iced the game” after a floater from Jones rimmed out and he hit two free throws to make it 83-79.

Pretty? Certainly not. A win? That’s what the scoreboard said.

“What I have to do and we have to do as a staff is help (our players) understand this is the best league in the country,” Holtmann said. “It's historically good. So there should never be a night where you don't celebrate finishing a game like we did and winning it against a quality opponent. Now, it's the coach's job to figure out how we've got to do things better, and we'll do that. We'll move forward. We'll have a great film session when we practice on Thursday. But bottom line, I want them to enjoy this. Absolutely. I want them to play with a smile on their face. They're doing something that's really unique. 

“To finish the game the way they did, I'm really proud of them. As coaches, we'll figure out ways where we've got to get better in areas. I think they understand how good this league is, and I do think they appreciate every win.”

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