In a sense, tonight’s game on the road at Xavier represented the first true challenge for Chris Holtmann’s team. Yes, they went blow-for-blow with both Akron and Niagara — but they shouldn’t have. And yes, the Musketeers (3-0) are unranked, but KenPom is kind to them (37), they received AP Poll votes this week, and they were picked to finish third in the Big East this season. On top of all that, the Cintas Center is not an easy place to win, which is proven by Xavier’s 116-26 (.817) record at home over the past nine seasons.
They also have two talented guards in Paul Scruggs and Colby Jones, who are both averaging at or near 20 points per game over the first two games of the season (Scruggs is at 20, Jones is 17.5). Between Xavier’s big guard duo and the hostile road environment, a win in the Cintas Center would have done wonders for both team morale right now as well as their NCAA Tournament resume come March.
Ohio State (3-1) needed a morale boost in the worst way after news broke Thursday afternoon that Justice Sueing would miss an “extended period of time” with an abdominal injury. After sitting out the Bowling Green game, the best possible scenario was that a few days of rest would help Sueing and he could play tonight. Unfortunately, the opposite was actually what happened, and Ohio State’s most versatile lineup piece will now be sidelined for quite some time.
Holtmann went with the same starting lineup as the previous two games, starting Jamari Wheeler and Malaki Branham at guard and Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell, and Zed Key at the forward. With no Sueing, each Buckeye was going to have to step up just a little bit more.
It wasn’t the start they were hoping for — that’s for sure. At the first media timeout, the Buckeyes were just 1-for-9 from the floor and trailed Xavier 6-2. The Musketeers weren’t exactly tearing up the dance floor either, however, having only taken six total shots over the first four minutes. A very clunky start for the two teams separated by just 100 miles down I-71.
BEAUTIFUL behind the back look from @natejohnson_10 to feed @DieonteMiles‼️ @XavierMBB came to play pic.twitter.com/fegDPVChkJ— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) November 18, 2021
The rest of the half wasn’t much better, and it was very clearly a battle of defenses — not offenses. Xavier’s defense was better, making it difficult for the Buckeyes to get the ball into the paint and benefitting off several unforced Buckeye turnovers. Seven different Buckeyes turned the ball over during the first half alone, leading to eight free points for the Musketeers.
Xavier held a 35-26 at the break. It was a sloppy, nasty, no-good half for either team, but the Buckeyes made more unforced errors, and the Musketeers capitalized. All eight Musketeers who saw first-half action scored in the first 20 minutes, compared to only five Buckeyes scoring in the first half. For as poorly as they played, Ohio State was truly lucky to only be down single-digits at the break.
The Buckeyes made a push in the second half, cutting Xavier’s lead to just three points following a Meechie Johnson 5-0 run with 3:29 to go. Johnson had arguably his best game in a Buckeye uniform with 14 points and 3 assists, but even his scoring outburst was not enough, as the Buckeyes would fall to the Musketeers in Cincinnati, 71-65.
After Liddell cut the lead to three again with under a minute to go, Scruggs came out of a timeout with a thunderous dunk to put Xavier back up five with 30 seconds remaining, and that’s all she wrote.
Ohio State was led by Liddell’s 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 rebounds. Jack Nunge powered Xavier with 14 points and 14 rebounds, 6 of which were of the offensive variety.
What were the key moments that ultimately led to Ohio State’s first loss of the season? Here are the moments that mattered:
Adam Kunkel breaks up the pillow fight
The first six minutes of this game were pretty gross, with both teams struggling to make open shots and in Xavier’s case — hold on to the ball. With Xavier leading 8-4 at the 13:52 mark, Adam Kunkel drove to the basket and scored with his left hand, pushing Xavier’s lead to six points. After Ohio State scored five straight points on a Meechie Johnson three and a Key dunk, Kunkel nailed a three-pointer from the right wing to keep the Buckeyes at bay, 13-9, with 12:31 to go in the half.
Ohio State turned the ball over nine times during the first half alone, including a stretch of 94 seconds where they turned the ball over three times in a row. Two of these came from senior captain Kyle Young on errant passes. You can sometimes overcome those mistakes playing Bowling Green, but do that against Xavier in their house and you’ll dig yourself a hole — quickly.
Kunkel, Johnson trade triples
Adam Kunkel steps back and strokes the 3! @XavierMBB stretches its lead pic.twitter.com/reGb6l9NdS— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) November 18, 2021
There’s always one guy who randomly explodes against Ohio State, isn’t there?
Adam Kunkel scored nine total points in Xavier’s wins over Niagara and Kent State. Tonight, the Belmont transfer scored eight in the first 12 minutes, including another three at the 9:21 mark of the first half to extend Xavier’s lead to seven, 20-13. But on the very next possession, Johnson knocked down his second three-pointer of the game to pull the Buckeyes back within four.
Kunkel would finish the game with a season-high 10 points.
X finishes the half strong
@natejohnson_10 finishes it off after @kovajoness served it up@XavierMBB is on fire pic.twitter.com/wtdyVPb27l— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) November 19, 2021
After Johnson’s and-one layup with 1:50 to go in the half got Ohio State back within five points, Xavier quickly converted its next three shots in a row (sandwiched around Buckeye misses) to extend their lead back out to 35-24 with 29 seconds left in the half.
Liddell’s six blocks
Another denial by Liddell @OhioStateHoops has no quit pic.twitter.com/7uCjIHyItU— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) November 19, 2021
Liddell set a career high with six blocks — in the first half. He dealt with foul trouble as well, and was forced to sit for the final two minutes of the first half after picking up his second foul. Liddell would finish with eight blocks — three more than Xavier’s entire team.
Oh brother...this guy again?
After two seasons at Iowa, Jack Nunge transferred to Xavier for his final two seasons of eligibility. At 7-feet tall and close to 240 pounds, he can be a lot to handle below the basket. Nunge pulled down two near back-breaking offensive rebounds with 11:05 to go and Xavier up 44-35 in the second half, as the Buckeyes fought to get back into the game.
After a missed Kunkel layup, Nunge grabbed the rebound and went right back up with it. He missed, but collected his own miss and went up again, where he was fouled and promptly hit both free throws. These were his fourth and fifth offensive rebounds of the game, and Xavier then led 46-35.
Nunge would finish with 14 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 3 steals.
A series of unfortunate events
After Wheeler’s triple with 9:04 remaining cut Xavier’s lead to 50-44, the Buckeyes had a series of events not go their way that really turned the tide.
SPLASH!— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) November 19, 2021
Corner 3 for @XavierMBB's @natejohnson_10 to extend the lead pic.twitter.com/RMEa9Y2Lvm
- After Kunkel missed a three, Nunge grabbed his sixth offensive rebound of the day and put t back up to make it 52-44
- Liddell called for a charge below the basket while being defended by Jerome Hunter
- Kunkel is fouled by Ahrens on a three-pointer, and hits two of three free throws to make it 54-44 with 8:10 remaining
With Xavier leading 54-49 and 5:13 remaining in the game, Key went up with the ball and missed. Eugene Brown attempted to corral the rebound, but was yanked down by Kunkel, hitting his shoulder hard on the ground. A common foul was assessed to Kunkel, but Brown was not physically able to shoot the free throw due to the injury.
The rules state that the opposing team’s coach can choose the free throw shooter in the event that the actual free throw shooter cannot take the shot. Travis Steele chose Key, who missed the front end of the one-and-one. Nate Johnson promptly nailed a three-pointer at the other end, extending Xavier’s lead to 57-49.
Immediately after Xavier extended the lead to eight, Johnson hit a three-pointer from the top of the key on the ensuing Ohio State possession. Young blocked Scruggs’ layup at the other end, Wheeler collected the rebound, and found Johnson streaking down the floor for a fast-break layup, cutting the Musketeers’ lead to just three, 57-54.
Scruggs’ thunderous dunk — for the win!
OH MY GOODNESS @the1paulscruggs— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) November 19, 2021
That's how you step it up! @XavierMBB pic.twitter.com/qNJ7TsREqU
Coming out of a timeout with 30 seconds remaining and up just three points, Scruggs put Liddell on a poster below the basket, slamming it home and bringing the entire crowd to its feet. Xavier took a five-point, 67-62 lead. Scruggs finished with 14 points, 10 of which came in the final three minutes of the game.
Ohio State (3-1) moves on to game number two in their stretch of heavy non-conference challenges, this time against Seton Hall (3-0). The Pirates, led by 12th-year head coach Kevin Willard, are fresh off a huge road win over the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines. Powered by star guards Jared Rhoden and Bryce Aiken, the Pirates look like a force to be reckoned with in the Big East this season. Although not currently ranked, SHU will find themselves in the AP Poll come Monday — and therefore Ohio State will have an opportunity for their first ranked win of the season. Ohio State — on the other hand — will likely fall out of the top 25.
Ohio State’s game against Seton Hall tips off at 6:00 p.m. ET on Monday night and will be broadcast on FS1.