No. 13 Ohio State has put together quite an impressive season to this point in year three under Chris Holtmann. Sitting at 12-4 overall coming into the night, the Buckeyes have already knocked off four ranked opponents in the 2020-21 campaign, including a trio of top-15 wins on the road. Winners of four of their last five games overall, Ohio State looked to keep the good times rolling at home on Wednesday against Penn State.
The Nittany Lions came into the contest having won two in a row, but the Buckeyes were able to cool them down with an 83-79 win in Columbus. It was an off night for Duane Washington Jr., but his teammates were able to pick him up as Ohio State found its offense from all over the floor. After fumbling away a 12-point lead, the Buckeyes bounced back and come away victorious with a late surge in the second half, narrowly overcoming a season-high in turnovers to defeat Penn State in a hotly-contested affair.
Ohio State was led by E.J. Liddell, who scored a team-high 22 points to go along with seven boards as the forward finished a perfect 10-of-10 from the free-throw line. The Buckeyes fell behind by as many as eight points in the second half, but a strong push from guys like Liddell and Justice Sueing (13 points) down the stretch was enough to overcome the team’s turnover woes. Ohio State was great inside, out-rebounding Penn State 36-28 with a 38-24 advantage in points in the paint. They were also money at the charity stripe, hitting 20-of-21 as a unit.
Coming out hot
Ohio State has been at its best this season when the Buckeyes are able to get out to a fast start. Chris Holtmann’s team has made a habit of jumping out to a lead in the first period, and whether they hold that lead into the second period or not, it can never hurt to spot yourself a few early points. It was more of the same on Wednesday night, as Ohio State came out of the gates looking stellar at both ends of the floor.
Almost every game this season we’ve talked about the Buckeyes having to overcome a height disadvantage as an undersized unit, but that was not the case against Penn State, whose only player over 6-foot-8 is John Harrar at 6-foot-9. Ohio State, which has been able to make up for a lack of size all year with an impressive level of physicality, was able to do some damage on the boards early on, helping the team jump out to a 14-2 just outside the first media timeout.
While holding the Nittany Lions to a 1-of-11 start from the field on the defensive end, Ohio State pulled down three early offensive rebounds at the other end that resulted in nine second-chance points. Justin Ahrens knocked down a pair of three-pointers in the first five minutes of action, while Kyle Young and Zed Key each converted on an and-one. Overall, the Buckeyes got out to an early 9-to-4 advantage on the glass, and by the second media timeout held a 21-10 advantage on the scoreboard.
The ‘Key’ to success
Freshman forward Zed Key has been an incredibly valuable member of this roster all season long. Doing all of his damage off the bench in year one, the 6-foot-8 Long Island native was averaging 6.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in just over 13 minutes per contest coming into the night. He has shined at both ends of the floor, with his 245-pound frame providing an intimidating force underneath the basket on defense while also showing an innate ability to finish with either hand on offense.
Against Penn State, the forward got off to a tremendous start. Playing just five minutes in the first period, Key put up nine points on a perfect 4-of-4 shooting while also coming down with an offensive rebound. The freshman attacked the paint early and often without fear, looking really dominant even with the bigger Harrar in his face and showcasing that physicality that has made he and the rest of this Buckeye unit so tough to guard. Key was a huge part of Ohio State’s big 14-3 edge in points off the bench heading into halftime. He and Ahrens led the team with nine points apiece at the break.
We talked earlier about Ohio State’s propensity this season to get out to an early lead, but a much more concerning trend has been their inability to keep it going as the game moves along. The Buckeyes have let far too many big leads slip away this season, and while more often than not they are able to still come away victorious, the contests become much closer than they should be. Even in games where it feels like Ohio State is dominating its opponent, you look up at the scoreboard late and it is very much in reach for the other side.
After leading by as many as 12 points in the first period, the Buckeyes went into halftime leading by just four points. Ahead by eight with a little over 20 seconds left in the half, Ohio State got sloppy, and a pair of turnovers led to an easy four points for Penn State to further cut into the deficit. The Buckeyes have had a habit this year of falling into these funks where they fail to score for extended periods of time, and it allows the other team to slowly chip away at their lead. They were able to minimize such stretches against the Nittany Lions, but it happened just enough to keep the game close.
Despite the slim margin, Ohio State largely outplayed Penn State in the first 20 minutes of action. They shot a better percentage (53% to 45%), they led in rebounding (17 to 15), points in the paint (20 to 12), and assists (nine to three). However, some lapses in judgement and poor execution led to nine first-half turnovers, and as a result the Buckeyes held only a 43-39 lead heading into the second period.
Throwing it away — literally
Ohio State began the second half about as poorly as you could ask. Turning it over four times in the opening five minutes of play in the period, the Buckeyes hit on just one of their first five attempts from the floor. The team just could not get out of their own way, with unforced errors and a bunch of fouls leading to easy baskets for Penn State. Quickly, the Ohio State lead had been entirely erased, as a 10-0 run for the Nittany Lions saw them take their first lead of the game, 49-46, at the 14:54 mark.
Foul trouble really began to mount for the Buckeyes, as with more than half the period still remaining, a bunch of their key contributors were now in danger of an early exit. Kyle Young was forced to the bench with four fouls, while E.J. Liddell and C.J. Walker both had to try and weather the storm with three fouls apiece. Washington Jr., Seth Towns and Justice Sueing were also all playing with two personal fouls as Ohio State was starting to stray from the disciplined approach they had on the defensive end in the first half.
By the second media timeout of the period, Penn State now held a 57-53 advantage. Ohio State’s turnovers had ballooned to 14 total, and the game was in danger of slipping away if they could not get their act together quickly.
Back and forth we go
Everything that could go wrong For Ohio State in the second half did just that. The shots stopped falling, they had a season-high in turnovers, and the fouls continued to mount as the Nittany Lions made trip after trip to the charity stripe. The rebounding advantage that the Buckeyes once had was now evaporating, the assists numbers fell off a cliff, and as a whole the team looked to be in complete disarray. At the under-eight media timeout, Ohio State was now trailing 71-64, and the inability to get stops at the defensive end without fouling was going to make it really tough to come back.
The Buckeyes began to make a bit of a run late in the period, cutting the Penn State lead to just one point with a little over three minutes remaining, but life was getting even tougher as both Young and Walker had now fouled out of the game. It didn’t seem to effect Ohio State right away, as a big three-pointer from Washington with 2:26 to go put the Buckeyes back on top. The Nits immediately answered with a three-ball from Lundy to retake the lead, and after two free throws from Sueing, things were all tied up at 79-79 with 1:21 left to play.
Another pair of free throws by Liddell put Ohio State up 81-79 with under a minute remaining as the game saw its ninth lead change. That score would hold until the 16.3-second mark, and Penn State would get the ball back with one last chance to win or tie. The attempt came up short, and an intentional foul allowed Liddell to ice the game with another two free throws as the Buckeyes escaped victorious, 83-79.
It certainly wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win as Ohio State moves to 13-4 overall and 7-4 in the Big Ten, which puts them mere percentage points behind Illinois and Wisconsin for third place in the conference. Now, the Buckeyes will stay at home to take on Michigan State, who will be in action for the first time since Jan. 8 when they play Rutgers on Thursday after a three-game hiatus as a result of COVID-19 cases within the program. Ohio State takes on Sparty this Saturday, Jan. 31, with tipoff set for 1:00 p.m. ET on CBS.