While No. 13 Ohio State did escape with a narrow four-point win over Penn State this week, it wasn’t pretty. The Buckeyes made uncharacteristic mistakes, namely their 17 turnovers. Four different Buckeyes committed three or more turnovers, and at times they came in spurts. Back-to-back turnovers — both steals by Jamari Wheeler — at the end of the first half allowed Penn State to cut Ohio State’s eight-point lead to just four in the final seconds of the period. Head coach Chris Holtmann later took responsibility for the turnovers, acknowledging that he had timeouts he could have used and that he put Meechie Johnson in a difficult position against the best defensive player in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes also found themselves in foul trouble against the Nittany Lions, with Kyle Young and CJ Walker fouling out and E.J. Liddell collecting his third foul early in the second half. Ohio State’s offense was efficient once again, shooting 51.9% overall, but these two areas had to be cleaned up to guarantee a home win against Michigan State.
The Spartans (8-6, 2-6) and Buckeyes (14-4, 8-4) seem to be trending in opposite directions. In their first game back Thursday after being on pause for three weeks due to positive COVID tests, Michigan State got thumped by Rutgers, 67-37. It was MSU’s lowest point total of the season as well as their worst margin of defeat thus far. They were without Gabe Brown, who leads Michigan State in three-point shooting at 46.2%. Brown was still unavailable Sunday against the Buckeyes as he continues to recover from COVID-19.
Ohio State, on the other hand, has now won six of their last seven games, including beating three ranked teams on the road. They were in a three-way tie for fourth-place in the B1G, but are now the sole owners of the No. 4 spot at 8-4. If the season were to end today, the Buckeyes would be awarded a double-bye in the B1G tournament for the first time in eight years.
While the Spartans don’t excel at any one particular area of the game, they have two veterans leading them in junior wing Aaron Henry (13.4 PTS, 5.4 REB, 3.5 AST) and Marquette transfer Joey Hauser (11.3 PTS, 7.5 REB). The Buckeyes needed to keep tabs on them, and they did a pretty good job, holding the aforementioned duo to 21 points on 7-of-19 shooting.
Joshua Langford scored a team-high 14 points for the Spartans but was inefficient, going 4-of-15 from the flor while also dishing out a pair of assists. It was a bounce-back effort for the MSU senior who scored just three points against Rutgers in their previous game.
Michigan State entered the game committing a conference-high 14.2 turnovers per game, but took better care of the rock against the Buckeyes. They turned it over ten times today, but a stagnant offense and persistent Buckeye defense made things hard for them all afternoon.
The much more sure-handed Buckeyes went to work in the first half, committing just one turnover in the opening 20. Liddell had nine points for the Buckeyes in the first half and Justin Ahrens chipped in seven, as Ohio State carried a 42-30 lead into the break. The Spartans didn’t play poorly in the opening frame, as they shot 40% from the floor, but they didn’t score a single field goal over the final 4:43 of the opening frame, allowing Ohio State to separate themselves from the Spartans. Joey Hauser had nine points in the first half for Michigan State.
The second half was a back-and-forth affair between the two teams, with both squads going through dry spells at times. Neither team was especially impressive on the offensive end, but Ohio State stayed stout on the defensive end, holding Michigan State to 32.1% shooting from the floor, and just 20.8% from beyond the arc. Every Spartan punch was answered by a Buckeye counter-punch, as Michigan State just couldn’t get consecutive stops often enough to cut into the Buckeye lead.
Liddell led the Buckeyes once again with 20 points and eight rebounds, as his stock continues to rise. Justice Sueing chipped in 17 and and seven rebounds, while a one-handed Walker had 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting.
What were the key plays that ultimately led to Ohio State’s third straight victory? Here are the moments that mattered:
Liddell cooking early
Like he has the last several weeks, Liddell started hot for the Buckeyes, scoring eight points in the first 3:41 of the game. After knocking down a three-pointer for OSU’s first bucket of the game, he also had an and-one layup (finished the three-point play) at the 16:40 mark and then a step-back elbow jumper 20 seconds later to give the Buckeyes an 11-7 lead. Ohio State fed Liddell the rock early and often, with the sophomore big man taking five shots over the first four minutes of the game.
Young cleans it up
While his production has dropped off a bit this season with other players eating into his minutes, his efficiency has not. At the 15:00 mark of the first half, Young took Joey Hauser to the rack and scored on a 4-foot jumper, and then 40 seconds later he was able to corral a missed layup by Justice Sueing and tip it back in for a bucket, extending Ohio State’s lead to 15-9. Young would finish with six points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.
Langford cans one, taunts Jallow
At the 10:34 mark and the Buckeyes leading by six, Joshua Langford — who came into the game averaging just over eight points per game — canned a triple from just in front of the Ohio State bench, cutting the Buckeye lead to three. After the bucket, Langford got in the ear of Ohio State’s Musa Jallow and whispered something, prompting Jallow to shove Langford away. Langford immediately threw his arms in the air, hoping a foul would be called on Jallow. An official separated the two and issued a warning, but no fouls were given during the exchange.
Washington Jr. ends the draught
Duane Washington Jr. has been struggling shooting the basketball the past few weeks, which is not a secret to anyone, including his coach. Chris Holtmann reminded everyone during his post-game press conference last week that despite Washington’s shooting struggles (5-of-30 shooting over his previous three games), he has been impacting the game in other ways, such as the 13 assists he dished out over the last three games.
Washington started today’s game cold as well, missing his first three shots while his team nursed a small lead. But with 3:54 remaining in the first half, Washington connected on a three-pointer from up top, giving the Buckeyes a 37-28 lead. He finished with eight points on 2-of-10 shooting.
OKAY!! GO OFF, Duane Washington!!! 3️⃣ pic.twitter.com/SD2Jw7UI2z— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) January 31, 2021
Ahrens makes amends for missed FT’s
Earlier in the game, Justin Ahrens was fouled by Langford on a three-pointer, and was awarded three free throws. Ahrens — an 80% free throw shooter — hit just one of three free throws, extending OSU’s lead to 20-14 (rather than 22-14).
But with just over a minute to go in the first half Ahrens made amends for his earlier mistake, capping an 8-0 Ohio State run with a triple from the corner to give the Buckeyes a 14-point lead. Ahrens finished with seven points and three rebounds in 23 minutes.
Spartans getting touchy
Michigan State got into serious foul trouble in the first half, picking up 12 fouls in the opening 20 minutes. This put the Buckeyes in the double bonus with over eight minutes to go in the first half. Five different Spartans had two fouls in the first half.
Ohio State was 9-of-13 as a team from the charity stripe in the period, with six different players making at least one trip to the line.
Watts trying to provide a spark
The Spartans struggled to score in the second half, several times going three or more minutes straight without a made basket. After Ohio State stretched their lead out to 20, Langford and Rocket Watts knocked down back-to-back three-pointers with 8:37 remaining to get Michigan State within 14, 61-47. Watts finished finished with six points on 2-of-9 shooting.
Henry’s heads-up steal
Leading 68-57 with 4:20 to go in the game, Young inbounded the ball to Walker following Michigan State free throws. The exchange between Young and Walker was slow and lazy, so Henry jumped the passing lane and stole it right underneath Ohio State’s basket and laid it up, cutting the Buckeye lead to just nine points.
Liddell, Young finish the job
After two Langford free throws got the Spartans within 10 points with 3:19 to go, E.J. Liddell went strong to the basket and was fouled. He hit both free throws, and on the very next possession Young (who was back in the game with four fouls) hit a jumper which was the fatal blow on the Spartans. Ohio State now had a 76-62 lead with just over two minutes to go, and the deed was done. When the buzzer sounded, Ohio State had defeated Michigan State for the first time in five tries, dating back to the 2018-2019 season.
The Buckeyes have the next three days off before they travel to Iowa City for a matchup with the seventh-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes (12-4, 6-3). On the heels of three straight victories, this game against the Hawkeyes gives Ohio State a prime opportunity to thrust themselves into the conversation for not only a double-bye in the tournament, but the Big Ten Championship as well. Iowa is coming off of back-to-back losses to Indiana and Illinois, but they will face a lifeless Michigan State team Tuesday evening before a quick turnaround has them facing the Buckeyes just two days later. The game against Iowa tips off at 7:00 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN.