Since Chris Holtmann became the head coach of the Ohio State men’s basketball team in 2017, the Buckeyes have rarely found themselves as big of underdogs as they did Tuesday evening with the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils in town. With a record of 92-46, a fifth-place average finish in the Big Ten (after four seasons), and 24 straight weeks in the AP Top-25 just recently being snapped, this program has been one of the steadiest in the country since the change in regime.
But Tuesday night was, without a doubt, a David vs. Goliath type of battle, despite what the Vegas oddsmakers had to say. No. 1 Duke (7-1) rolled into Columbus on the heels of a massive win over No. 3 (formerly No. 1 ) Gonzaga, just days after the Bulldogs rolled over a fantastic UCLA team. Led by a potential No. 1 draft pick in Paolo Banchero, Mike Krzyzewski’s team boasted a mix of size and athleticism that the Buckeyes likely won’t see again this season.
Compounding Duke’s height advantage was the fact that the Buckeyes (5-2) are still without the services of Seth Towns, Eugene Brown, and Justice Sueing — who all are out with varying injuries. Sueing continues to nurse an abdominal injury, but is supposedly a few weeks from returning. Towns is recovering from back surgery in the fall, and is also targeting a December return. Brown has missed the last three games after suffering a concussion against Xavier on Nov. 18. He is day-to-day, and has a chance to play in Ohio State’s next game against Penn State.
Duke rolled out a starting lineup of Jeremy Roach, Trevor Keels, Wendell Moore Jr., Paolo Banchero, and Mark Williams. The Buckeyes countered with Jamari Wheeler, Malaki Branham, Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell, and Zed Key — who reclaimed his spot in the starting five after Joey Brunk started both games in the Fort Myers Tip-Off.
Historically a slow-moving team, Ohio State tried to control the pace early on, and the scoring in the first half reflected that. At the under-8 timeout, Duke led 27-19, with seven different Blue Devils already in the scoring column. The Buckeyes were doing a fairly good job at limiting Banchero early on, but Duke’s supporting cast around him is probably the most talented in the nation.
Duke held a 43-30 lead at halftime following a 7-0 run right before the break. Banchero got it going after a slow start, racking up 10 first-half points. Key led Ohio State with nine points in the opening frame, but the true story of the first 20 minutes were the turnovers — Ohio State had nine of them in the first half alone. The Buckeyes were also whiffing at the free throw line, going 3-for-10 in the first half.
Duke tried to open it up in the second half, but Ohio State just would not let them. After building a 15-point lead early in the second stanza, the Buckeyes scratched and clawed back into it, finally taking the lead with 1:03 remaining in the game. Cedric Russell had his coming out party, scoring 12 points on 3-4 shooting plus three free throws. After Liddell’s turn-around jumper with 15 seconds remaining gave them a three-point lead, the comeback was complete.
Ball game pic.twitter.com/wzcPgnCoS7— E.J. Liddell (@EasyE2432) December 1, 2021
Ohio State slayed the giant, David finished off Goliath, and the Buckeyes beat the No. 1 team in the country in their second straight attempt. Ohio State was led by Key’s career-high 20 points, but Liddell and Russell both chipped in double digits as well. Duke was led by Moore’s 17 points and 8 rebounds.
Now, in case you weren’t able to catch all of tonight’s Big Ten/ACC action, here are some of the key moments and plays that led to Ohio State’s historic victory Tuesday night.
Branham in attack mode early
Holtmann noted several times that Branham is the youngest player on the team. He also told the media early on this season that, “He just doesn’t get nervous.” Branham proved him right in the first few minutes of this game, sparking Ohio State to an early 8-7 lead. With the Buckeyes down 4-2, Branham drove directly at Duke’s Trevor Keels on back-to-back possession, scoring below the basket both times. Branham would finish with 8 points on 4-6 shooting.
Also noteworthy: Keels has 40 pounds on Branham.
Duke ties it with Liddell out
With 12:35 remaining in the first half and Ohio State leading 13-9, Liddell checked out in favor of Brunk. Keels promptly scored on a drive to the right side of the basket, and — following a Buckeye turnover — Theo John found Moore Jr. under the basket for an easy dunk, tying the game at 13. All of this happened in the 67 seconds that Liddell was absent.
Banchero enters the scoring column
This scoop shot from Paolo Banchero was a BEAUTY pic.twitter.com/0bY2jEvmyA— ESPN (@espn) December 1, 2021
Held scoreless — and to only two shot attempts — over the first 10 minutes, Banchero finally got in the scoring column with a nifty scoop layup at the 9:48 mark, putting the Blue Devils up 19-15. He was fouled by Liddell on the play, and the 81% free throw shooter knocked it down to give his team a five-point first half lead. Banchero would finish with 14 points on 4-14 shooting when all was said and done.
Williams’ slam pads Duke’s lead
With 7:33 to go in the half and Duke leading 25-19, a blown switch by Ohio State let Williams cut straight at the basket, and a thunderous jam stretched Duke’s lead to eight, 27-19.
D’oh & D’oh
Trailing by just five points with 5:16 remaining in the first half, Wheeler let the ball pop loose and it went directly into the arms of Keels, who passed it to Moore. Then, Wheeler slapped at his hand, fouling Moore and sending him to the line. Moore hit both free throws, giving Duke a 29-22 lead.
Buckeyes dying at the stripe early
Ohio State had some trouble at the free throw line in the first half … to put it lightly. The Buckeyes went 3-for-10 from the stripe in the first half, including misses from five different players. The pain truly was a group effort. They were better in the second half, but still finished 11-22 from the charity stripe as a team.
Ahrens triple cuts the lead to single digits
With Ohio State trailing by 12 early in the second half, they needed to either string a run together with their quickness, or start trading Duke’s twos for threes.
Ahrens chose the second approach, knocking down an off-balance three-pointer with 16:33 to go in regulation, pulling Ohio State back within nine, 51-42.
A series of unfortunate events
Ohio State had so many chances to get back in this game early on — they really did — they just fumbled away those early opportunities time and time again. For example, with 14:49 left in the game and trailing 53-42, this series of events occurred:
- After being fouled by John, Liddell missed both free throws, making him 1-of-5 from the stripe at that point.
- After a defensive stop, Branham lost the ball without the help of any Duke player.
- After another defensive stop, Meechie Johnson Jr. air-balled a wide open three from the corner.
This @ahrensjustin12 3 spent a lot of time on the rim. @OhioStateHoops is starting to rally vs. No. 1 Duke. pic.twitter.com/ypJzCf2GAH— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) December 1, 2021
With 12:43 left, Liddell cleanly blocked Roach’s layup, and Johnson collected the rebound for OSU. He then darted down the court like a bat out of hell. With one Duke defender on his hip, Johnson recognized Ahrens had been following him, but on the left side. Johnson ran to the free throw line — bringing the defender with him — and then uncorked a fastball to Ahrens on the wing. Ahrens canned the three (after a few friendly bounces), shrinking Duke’s lead to just six, 53-47.
John fouls out
With 6:26 remaining, John bumped Key below the basket, drawing his fifth foul of the game and thus, fouling out. John voiced his displeasure at the call — as he did with all five of his fouls — before walking back to the bench. Key knocked down both free throws, and the Duke lead went from nine to seven, 62-55.
Wheeler cuts it to five
Down 66-59, Wheeler sprinted around a screen on the low block to easily lay it up on the left side, cutting the Duke lead to just five points. Coach K called timeout, which also prompted the final media timeout, and the building erupted.
Liddell’s free throws give Ohio State the lead
With 1:03 remaining and Ohio State trailing by just a point, Liddell was fouled by Moore away from the basket, sending him to the line — where he was 1-5 on the day. Liddell promptly knocked down both, giving the Buckeyes a 67-66 lead with just over a minute to go.
CHAOS.#Team123 #GoBucks pic.twitter.com/Y4PCKHTDIB— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) December 1, 2021
Ohio State opens B1G play this Sunday on the road against the Penn State Nittany Lions (4-2). Led by first-year head coach Micah Shrewsberry, the Nittany Lions are coming off a 60-45 victory over Oregon State, an Elite Eight team from a season ago. The Nits also have a 25-point loss to UMass on their resume from earlier this month. Ohio State’s game against Penn State tips off at 7:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on BTN.