Doomed by shaky defense and hit-or-miss effort, Ohio State's 2015-16 season came to a close Sunday afternoon with a 74-66 defeat at the hands of the visiting Florida Gators in the National Invitation Tournament.
The Buckeyes (21-14), playing their second straight game without Keita Bates-Diop (illness), trailed by one at halftime but laid an egg for most of the second half. Freshman point guard A.J. Harris spurred a late surge, but the Gators failed to wilt.
Florida (21-14) awaits the winner of No. 1 Monmouth (28-7) and No. 4 George Washington (24-10) on Wednesday. Third-seeded Ohio State, which staved off sixth-seeded Akron in a 72-63 overtime win on Tuesday, were the hosts on Sunday despite being the lower seed because No. 2 Florida's O'Connell Center is being renovated.
The Gators -- playing without John Egbunu (thumb surgery), the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder -- started fast, blazing to a 9-0 start, which forced a timeout by the Buckeyes with 16:18 on the first half clock. Florida's lead reached 14 points before Ohio State woke up, cutting the lead to six points midway through the first half.
The Buckeyes' halfcourt offense continually struggled to create anything of substance -- an unsurprising development given the absences of Bates-Diop and Jae'Sean Tate (shoulder), the team's second and third-leading scorers -- but the defense stiffened, as the Gators scored just four points over the last 5:37 of the first half. The crowd came alive after Harris secured a defensive rebound, outraced Florida down the floor, and missed a layup but was bailed out by a tip-dunk by Daniel Giddens.
At half, the Gators led by just one (31-30) after a 9-0 run by the Buckeyes to close the first 20 minutes. At the break, Marc Loving led all scorers with 12 points. JaQuan Lyle had nine points and six rebounds. Florida's balanced effort (six players scored) was paced by KeVaughn Allen's seven points. The two teams combined to miss 16 of their 22 3-point attempts.
The second half began much like the first, which the Gators carving up the Buckeyes' defense. Three consecutive conversions at the rim pushed Florida's advantage to 37-30. More bad/lackluster defense from Ohio State aided another strong stretch from the Gators, and when Thad Matta burned a timeout with 15:46 remaining, the visitors were ahead 43-32. The Buckeyes began the half missing their first four shots and turning the ball over four times.
Florida continued to net easy shot after easy shot, with the lead ballooning to 16 halfway through the second stanza on a layup by Dorian Finney-Smith. Harris' shocking baseline throwdown over Kevarrius Hayes offered some inspiration and trimmed the lead to 60-49 at the under-8 timeout. Harris' two free throws pulled Ohio State within seven with just over four minutes, but Florida answered with a three from Kasey Hill. The Gators were up 68-61 following a Loving triple with 75 seconds left, and closed the game out by hitting their final six free throws. The loss was the first in seven tries for Matta in the NIT.
Loving led all scorers with 20 points, his fourth 20-point outing in the Buckeyes' final six contests. Lyle added 19 points and 11 boards. Finney-Smith notched 16 points and 12 rebounds. Hill had 15 points.
3 things we learned
1. Get well soon, Keita Bates-Diop. Ohio State's offense has been bad all season, but it looks even worse without Bates-Diop, who had 22 double-digit scoring games this season. And without Bates-Diop out again on Sunday, quite a few Buckeyes looked like they were playing with tired legs. Against Akron, Loving and Kam Williams (in his first start) played the full 45 minutes. Lyle played 44 minutes. Mickey Mitchell (26) set a season-high in minutes, and Giddens (27) came within one minute of his season-high to help account for the loss of KBD's 31.5 minutes per game.
2. The Big Ten's shaky weekend continued. It's been an uneven four days for the Big Ten. No. 5 Purdue blew a 13-point lead late in the second half and fell in double overtime to No. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock. National title favorite Michigan State fell to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State in one of the more shocking upsets in tournament history. Fifth-seeded Maryland escaped No. 12 South Dakota State in spite of a handful of late-game brain farts, including fouling the Jackrabbits twice on 3-point attempts inside the game's last 63 seconds. No. 7 Iowa survived No. 10 Temple in overtime despite allowing Temple to tie the game with 2.1 seconds left in regulation following a foul on a Temple 3-point shot. No. 6 Wisconsin edged Pittsburgh 47-43, becoming the first team in 13 years to win a NCAA Tournament game despite not scoring at least 50 points. No. 11 Michigan blew a 12-point halftime advantage and lost to No. 6 Notre Dame.
On the bright side, No. 5 Indiana, the Big Ten's regular-season champions, took care of business against Chattanooga before outlasting border rival Kentucky on Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16.
3. A trying season finally reached its conclusion. Ohio State looked half-exhausted, half-disinterested on Sunday. Perhaps that should not have been a surprise showing from a young team. The season was an agonizing struggle at times, but everyone (should) be back for the Buckeyes, so the future remains bright. Next year is a critical one for everyone involved with the program.