All good things must come to an end, and considering the bargain-basement expectations with which the fifth-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes entered the season, the first campaign under new head coach Chris Holtmann shouldn’t be considered anything less than an unbridled success. However, that realization doesn’t lessen the sting of falling to the No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs 90-84 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, ending the Buckeyes’ season.
With the win, last year’s national runners-up advance to their fourth-straight Sweet 16, and the Buckeyes head home to begin to focusing on the 2018-19 season, as next year’s squad will be without a substantial percentage of this year’s production and leadership.
Whether it was nerves or postseason experience, Gonzaga raced out to a commanding lead to open the game. But, as Ohio State has done all season (especially since these two teams met in late November), they refused to give up, and scratched and clawed to improbably make the game competitive in the second half.
The game got off to an inauspicious start for both offenses, as each missed a pair of layups (Jae’Sean Tate and C.J. Jackson for OSU) that would have marked the game’s first points. However, it was Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell Jr. who hit a corner-three to get the scoring underway. Both teams continued to press a bit early on, combining for five turnovers in the first 2:30 of action.
Kaleb Wesson missed the third layup for the Buckeyes in the opening minutes, and then picked up his second silly foul moments later. After going to the video replay, the officials determined that it would be upgraded to a Flagrant 1, sending the younger Wesson brother to the bench.
Rui Hachimura hit one of the two flagrant free-throws, and Killian Tillie connected on a jumper in the ensuing possession. With OSU on offense, Tate drove to the basket, only to have his attempt blocked by Hachimura, who then rattled off a pair of baskets of his own to increase the Gonzaga lead to 13-0 with 15:24 left in the first half.
Tate finally got the Buckeyes on the board 5:40 into the game, as the senior leader hit a three as time expired on the shot clock, ending the Zags’ 15-0 run to open the contest. That was followed by a running jumper by Kam Williams, but the Bulldogs continued to exploit their size and athletic advantage to get to the hoop. Just seven minutes into the game, Gonzaga already had 12 points in the paint.
Williams and Keita Bates-Diop followed up with a pair of triples to cut the Gonzaga lead to 19-11 by the time that the under-12 media timeout rolled around. The Buckeyes hit three of their first four attempts from downtown, which was the only thing keeping them in the game early.
In the first nine minutes of action, OSU had four turnovers, with those giveaways leading directly to nine points for the Zags. The West Coast Conference champions were also getting far more significant contributions from their bench in the first half. When the teams went to the under-8 break, the Bulldogs had 10 points from their reserves, while OSU had zero.
That changed when Micah Potter stepped into a three-pointer with 6:04 remaining before halftime. That bucket was followed by a pair of free-throws by Jackson, cutting the Zags advantage to 30-23. Jackson made a nifty move to get into the lane to connect on a one-handed floater. However, every time that the Buckeyes seemed to be making inroads, the Bulldogs found a way to answer and keep OSU at arms length.
Following a fancy, gravity-defying layup by Tate, OSU began to employ a 2-3 Zone. However, Hachimura continued to find more and more improbable ways to put the ball through the basket. He accounted for 13 of Gonzaga’s 16 first-half bench points on 6-8 shooting.
After Gonzaga held the ball for the final shot of the half, Andre Wesson got a huge block from behind on a Perkins’ layup attempt to send the game to the intermission at 44-33.
In the first 20 minutes, the Bulldogs shot an impressive 18-of-31 from the field (58.1%), while OSU was just 12-for-31 (38.7%). Both teams were shooting well from distance; Gonzaga- 6-12 (50%), Ohio Sate 5-11 (45.5%). The only area of shooting that the Buckeyes had an advantage was at the charity stripe, where OSU was 4-4 (100%), but Gonzaga was 2-6 (33%).
As the first half progressed, the Buckeyes tightened up their ball handling, and finished the half with just six turnovers, but continued to struggle from short distance, missing at least six shots that could easily be described as layups or bunnies.
Norvell Jr. led all scorers with 15, and Hachimura was close behind with his 13. For the Buckeyes, Bates-Diop was back to his early-season form, picking up 14 points in the first half.
Jackson opened the second half with a three-pointer, but Gonzaga’s Jonathan Williams got an easy pick-and-roll dunk. However, Williams followed up with a three of his own, and then the OSU defense forced a turnover, and Tate got a back-down layup to cut the lead to 46-41 a minute and a half into the second half.
After securing the offensive rebound on a Tate miss, Kaleb Wesson completed the old-fashioned three-point play, and all of a sudden, the Buckeyes were within a bucket, 48-46.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the true-freshman was whistled for this third personal on Gonzaga’s next offensive possession. However, unlike in the first half, Holtmann let his big man stay in the game. That gamble did not end up paying off, as less than 40 seconds later, he picked his fourth, and the head coach had no choice but to bring him to the bench.
With Kaleb Wesson out of the game, Jonathan Williams began to impose his will on Potter inside. With a jumper, a pair of rebounds, and a free-throw, it was clear that with the Buckeyes’ starting center out of the game, Gonzaga coach Mark Few wanted to exploit their inside advantage.
In response, Holtmann countered by going small, and allowing Bates-Diop to guard Williams, with Potter on the bench. Following another triple by Jackson and a Williams pull-up, OSU was down a single point, 52-51. Then on the other end of the floor, Tate drew Hachimura’s third foul, and momentum was clearly swinging in the Buckeyes’ direction.
After a couple of missed opportunities, Ohio State took the lead for the first time at 10:35 in the second half on a Williams bucket from deep. Tate followed it up with a steal and slam giving OSU the 58-54 advantage.
Following a double-technical foul on Williams and Gonzaga’s Silas Melson, the Bulldogs tied the game, but Andrew Dakich did his father proud with his best Aaron Craft impression. First, he drove the lane for the easy layup, then immediately turned around to steal the inbounds pass. Then on Gonzaga’s next offensive possession, he drew the offensive foul on Jonathan Williams, sending the Zag’s leading scorer to the bench with his fourth foul. The Buckeyes led 62-58 with eight minutes remaining in regulation.
A minute and a half later, Norvell Jr. took a rebound coast-to-coast and tied the game at 62. From there, KBD hit a pair of free-throws and then a step-back triple. Norvell Jr. answered with a three of his own; the first for the Zags in the second half on seven attempts.
After a Bates-Diop miss, Perkins found Tillie inside, and he got the layup and was fouled by Tate (his fourth). The three bucket put Gonzaga back in the lead 68-67. The Zags went on an 11-0 run to increase the lead to 73-67 with three and a half remaining.
After bobbling the ball, Tate broke the nearly three-minute scoring drought for OSU, cutting the lead to four. However, following another clutch Norvell Jr. three-pointer, Hachimura blocked a Bates-Diop layup. In the scramble for ball, Tate was charged with his fifth and final foul of the contest ending his incredible collegiate career.
With 11 points, Tate might never be considered one of the most talented players in Ohio State history, but his heart and intensity carried this program through some of the darkest days in recent memory, and he should be remembered as one of the toughest players to ever play for the Buckeyes.
Now down 78-70, the Buckeyes continued to try to climb back into the game, but it, in the end, it wasn’t enough. OSU continued to keep the offensive pressure, but they were never able to get the stops that they needed on defense.
After being worn down for most of the last month of the season, Bates-Diop showed why he was the unanimous B1G Player of the Year with a yeoman 28 points on 10-21 shooting in what very well could be the final game as a Buckeye. Williams also ended his time in Scarlet and Gray with a strong 19 points, and Jackson, who will almost certainly return for his senior season in the fall, added 18.
Gonzaga will face the winner of Sunday’s contest between No. 1 Xavier and No. 9 Florida State in the Sweet 16. The matchup will take place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thursday, March 22; time to be announced.