After the Ohio State Buckeyes beat No. 21 Seton Hall 79-76 on Monday night and the No. 23 Florida Gators beat Cal 80-60, the two old foes met up on Thanksgiving Eve in the Beach Division Championship Game of the 2021 Fort Myers Tipoff.
Like some of the more high-profile meetings between the schools, the Buckeyes again fell to the Gators by a score of 71-68.
Ohio State was, unsurprisingly, led by junior forward E.J. Liddell who paced the scoring with 23 points — including 13 in the first half. Liddell also added 5 rebounds and 5 blocks to his stat line. The other story of the game was how many free throws that the Gators shot. Thanks to 24 fouls called on OSU, they went to the line 33 times, converting 23 of their attempts. Ohio State hit 13 of their 20 free throws on the night.
Before Wednesday night, it had been 2,075 days since these two teams last met; that game was in the second round of the 2016 NIT Tournament, a game which Florida won 74-66. And if you are up for some even more painful memories, it had been 5,350 days since the programs met in the NCAA Tournament Championship Game in 2007; which, for some reason, I cannot recall the outcome of for the life of me. For context, it has been 3,651 since The Mitten State Weasels have beaten Ohio State in football. To celebrate the occasion, Ohio State broke out their very crisp all-white jerseys with red, script lettering.
The early going of the game was a dominated by the Buckeyes’ starting big men as Liddell and Joey Brunk combined for the team’s first eight points (contributing four apiece) before Jamari Wheeler — under pressure in the backcourt — found a wide open Justin Ahrens who drained a three to give the white-clad crew an 11-4 lead.
From their however, the Gators began to use their size and athleticism to cause problems for the Buckeyes on both ends of the floor. With Wheeler on the bench following two quick fouls, UF picked up the pressure and began double-teaming anyone who brought the ball up the floor. The pressure resulted in a handful of turnovers by Jimmy Sotos and more than a handful of ill-advised shots being hoisted up. The defensive intensity resulted in an ugly run for the Buckeyes where they went 6:23 without a field goal.
But fortunately for the Buckeyes, the Gators were also struggling from the field, as UF was only able to cut the lead to 15-13 before Liddell finally broke the skid with a floating jumper in the lane.
After the Buckeyes turned the ball over on four straight possessions, the Gators’ Colin Castleton converted on a layup to give UF their first lead of the game at 19-17. Following another OSU turnover on the subsequent possession, Brandon McKissic hit a triple to put Florida up 22-17. The three-pointer capped off a 9-0 run that ended when Kyle Young drove the lane and converted an old-fashioned three-point play to pull the good guys within two.
Ohio State retook the first half lead at the 2:34 mark as Cedric Russell hit a three-pointer on the left wing to move the score to 25-24. Ohio State slightly extended its lead to 30-26 as the teams went into the locker room for halftime.
Just two minutes into the second half, Liddell picked up his third personal foul. He played until the 16:15 mark before Holtmann called him over to the bench, but a bit surprisingly, he returned less than a minute (and a media timeout) later. Despite the whistle-happy nature of the game, Liddell did not pick up another foul on the game.
After Florida had cut the OSU lead to a single point, Wheeler converted on two physical drives to the basket to reestablish the Buckeye lead at 38-33. Monday night’s hero Meechie Johnson Jr. followed suit and on the next possession raced to the rim and delivered a pretty underhanded scoop to move the advantage to seven points.
The Buckeyes took their first double-digit lead of the game as Sotos picked up the Aaron Craft assist; after diving on the floor for a loose ball, he shoveled it to Zed Key who slammed it home to give Ohio State the 47-37 advantage.
The 10-point lead was short-lived, however, as the Gators ramped up their defensive pressure again resulting in three-straight turnovers by the Buckeyes (and four in just 1:10 of action). UF was able to convert those Buckeye giveaways into eight points, cutting the lead to 47-45.
The spat of fouls apparently riled up the Buckeye bench as a technical foul was called leading to four free throws — all made by Phlandrous Fleming Jr. — which brought the OSU lead down to just 51-49. In the arena it wasn’t clear who had been assessed the tech, but presumably it was against Holtmann. If so, it would be his second in as many games.
After UF got the game to a single basket, Liddell hit a pair of FTs and Wheeler drained a triple to get the lead back to five points. Throughout the game, every time that Florida made a run, it felt like OSU was able to find a way to counter. And what should be encouraging to Buckeye fans is that it wasn’t always just Liddell making the big plays. With Wheeler and Ahrens hitting clutch threes, Key having himself a mini-run in the middle of the second half, Kyle Young doing Kyle Young things, it shows that the Buckeyes have more than just one playmaker that they can turn to when things get tough.
Shortly thereafter, OSU did it again, after UF cut the lead to 58-56, Ahrens hit another three and then Liddell forced a turnover which led to a Branham layup that put the Buckeyes back up by seven; every time that the Gators got close, Ohio State was able to find an answer.
From there, the pace picked up as the teams traded baskets before Florida’s CJ Felder hit a layup with 3:31 remaining in regulation to tie the game at 63.
With 37 second remaining, Florida forward Anthony Duruji seemingly flew to convert an alley oop to tie the game at 68. Then, after a Liddell miss, Tyree Appleby hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give the mini-tournament title to the Gators. The make was Appleby’s second of the game on 10 attempts, but it was the only shot that mattered.
Florida’s length was a problem for the Buckeyes throughout, and it showed itself in OSU’s struggles to take care of the ball. Holtmann’s squad was averaging just 11.2 turnovers per game coming into Monday night’s matchup, but UF forced 10 of them in the first half alone. Sotos, the primary ball-handler for much of the first 20 minutes, had a pair, as did Liddell and Malaki Branham.
On the other side of the floor, the Buckeyes forced six TOs from Florida in the first period. The giveaways seemed to come in spurts, directly related to the defensive energy of the Gators. Ohio State seems to still be struggling to figure out who their most steady guards are. Sotos, Wheeler, and Johnson all spent time bringing the ball up, and while the point guards weren’t the only ones having trouble maintaining possession, that certainly seems to be a part of OSU’s rotation that needs suring up.
Without looking at the stat sheet, you could have gotten the feeling that the two teams were playing fairly evenly matched games, especially given how close the score was throughout. But when you took a peek at the numbers, I wouldn’t fault you for being shocked at how dominant Ohio State was from the floor.
On the night, the Buckeyes were 25-for-47 (53.2%) while UF was 22-for-60 (36.7%). The Gators were able to stay in the game thanks those 13 extra free throw attempts than OSU, but against a team as big and quick as Florida, the fact that the Buckeyes were able to create such a shooting differential is a testament to their scoring ability.
Florida is a very good team, and I would not be surprised if this game becomes a template for Holtmann on how to get the most out of his team as they move into the Big Ten schedule.
E.J. Liddell Blocks
Though Liddell set the offensive standard for Ohio State on the night, he also continued to show his defensive development around the rim. On the evening, he accounted for five blocked shots. Against a team as long and athletic as Florida, having a legitimate eraser at the rim made a big difference.
Not to beat a dead Pirate, but the Buckeyes were 11-of-22 from beyond the arc on Monday night. In the first half on Wednesday night, OSU was a putrid 2-of-11 from distance. Surprisngly, Florida was just as bad going 1-10 in the first 20 minutes.
The first few minutes of the half were slightly different as the Gators hit their second attempt from deep, while Ahrens converted on OSU’s first shot from three-point land. Thanks to a strong second half, the Buckeyes 5-of-19 (26.3%) from distance, while UF was just 4-of-14 (28.6%), but the last one was obviously the most painful, and the most important.
For the second game in a row, Ohio State significantly lost the offensive rebounding battle (11 to 4 against Seton Hall and 16 to 7 against Florida). However, as Pirates’ head coach Kevin Willard pointed out in his postgame press conference following the 79-76 loss on Monday, because Ohio State has been shooting a fairly high percentage from the floor, they have fewer options to collect offensive rebounds.
As I mentioned above, the Buckeyes significantly outshot UF, meaning that just based on my rudimentary understanding of statistics and numbers in general, that they had a substantially larger number of opportunities to collect offensive rebounds than the Buckeyes did.
So, offensive rebounding numbers can be important, but they can also be deceiving.
The Buckeyes will take the Thanksgiving holiday off and will be back on the court on Tuesday for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge when they will host Mike Krzyzewski and the No. 5 Duke Blue Devils.
The game take place at the Value City Arena in Columbus and will air on ESPN at 9:30 p.m. ET.