“Traitor!” was the cheer that many fans in the Bryce Jordan Center chanted as former Penn State Nittany Lion and two-time Big Ten All-Defensive Team honoree Jamari Wheeler touched the ball. After transferring from Happy Valley to Columbus following last season, the OSU point guard became Public Enemy No. 1 as he returned to Penn State for the first time in a visiting uniform.
While this likely won’t go down as the “Jamari Wheeler Game™,” the transfer guard was big — especially early on — as Ohio State opened conference play with a hard-fought 76-64 victory over a team that has a knack for giving the Buckeyes the business. I’ll talk about Wheeler’s game more in a minute, but he was one of nine Buckeyes that saw action on the night, and all of them scored.
Forward Kyle Young led OSU in points and rebounds with 16 and 7, he was joined in double-figures by E.J. Liddell (14) and Malaki Branham (11).
After the home team took an early seven-point lead, the rest of the game belonged to the Buckeyes, but the Nits did cut the lead to just seven with 4:25 left to go in regulation before Meechie Johnson Jr. hit a cold-blooded three-pointer as the shot clock was winding down.
Despite the practically inevitable return of the #OhioStateMensBasketballExperience in the final minutes, for the most part, the OSU offense looked as crisp and free-flowing as it has all season. The defense broke down a bit as the game went on, but when they were clicking, they were flying around the floor and looked incredibly tenacious.
A Game of Runs
Ohio State scored the game’s first five points; Penn State scored the next 12. PSU’s Seth Lundy picked up nine early points on 4-of-5 shooting to give the home team an early advantage. However, coming out of the first media timeout, the Buckeyes hit back-to-back-to-back triples to retake the lead; Meechie Johnson Jr., Wheeler, and Justin Ahrens all connected from distance. That 9-0 run was quick and impressive from a Buckeye team that appeared to be hitting on all cylinders after taking one on the chin early from the Nits.
In the first 10 minutes of action, OSU was 10-of-16 from the floor, including 7-of-12 from behind the arc — during that time period, six different Buckeyes connected from distance.
After the halftime break, Chris Holtmann’s squad reopened action with another scoring streak. They connected on four of their first five attempts from the floor to go on an 11-4 run, pushing the lead to 52-34 at the first media timeout of the second stanza.
What was nice about all of OSU’s runs in the game was that they didn’t fall on the shoulders of just one hot-handed Buckeye. Four players contributed to that early second half run and it included points in the point, from beyond the arc, and from the charity stripe.
Finally, to wrap up the game, after the Lions closed the gap to just six, the Buckeyes went on a decisive 6-0 run in the final 41 second to secure the 12-point victory.
There’s No Place Like Home
As mentioned above, while the BJC is no longer his home, Wheeler certainly felt very comfortable in his old arena. In the first half of action, Wheeler was the most productive Buckeye, accounting for 7 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists.
He seemed to thrive on the vitriol being spewed in his general direction by the PSU fans. After his first basket of the game, as he was running back down the floor, he turned to the crowd and yelled something apparently at no one (or perhaps everyone) in particular.
Wheeler has always been a guy who has played with a fire in his game, but that was especially evident on Sunday night in State College.
Jamari Wheeler gets his first basket AGAINST Penn State and then turns towards the crowd and gives them a piece of his mind. pic.twitter.com/qNQiSyNUZL— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) December 6, 2021
Just 3:31 into the second period, Wheeler dropped in a nice little layup giving him nine points on the game. That tied his season/Ohio State career high and he finished his return to Happy Valley with 9 points, 5 rebounds, 9 assists, and 3 steals.
Don’t Let E.J. Beat Us
Early on, the game-plan for the Nits was to focus on Liddell and make someone else wearing scarlet beat them. They would often throw two or three defenders down to the block every time the Wooden Award candidate got the ball down low. Fortunately for OSU, Liddell was able to find open teammates pretty regularly, leading to lots of open looks.
His teammates delivered in the first half as Liddell was a quiet 2-of-6 (33%) from the floor, but the rest of the team was 13-of-21 (62%).
Six #Buckeyes scored tonight before E.J. Liddell, who hit a pair of free throws with 7 minutes to go in the half.— Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy) December 6, 2021
And Ohio State hasn't missed him much. Buckeyes up 33-23 with 3:36 until the break.
In addition to what the esteemed Mr. Jardy referenced, Liddell didn’t connect on his first field goal until a layup with 1:18 left in the first period. He followed it up with a pretty put-back as time expired on the first half to get to his six points before the break.
After picking up another four points in the second half, Liddell went to the bench with about 5:30 left after picking up his fourth foul on the day. That is when PSU closed the gap to just six. After a media timeout with 2:39 remaining in regulation, and even though he didn’t take the shot on his first offensive possession, it was obvious that the Nits were concerned about Liddell’s presence as Ahrens was left fairly wide open to drain his third three-pointer of the night.
In the first 20 minutes of action, Ohio State’s starters were outscored by the first-five Nits by a score of 28-25. But — and it’s a big “but” — the Buckeye bench held an impressive 16-2 advantage in the scoring department. That was fueled by Young’s team-high eight in the first half, and Johnson Jr. and Cedric Russell combined for the other eight.
As the game progressed, Young continued to impose his will. The fifth-year senior hit his first four shots from the floor (all from behind the arc) and his first two attempts from the free-throw line. OSU’s #GlueGuy missed his final shot of the night to finish 4-of-5 from the field.
Ohio State ended with a 29-5 discrepancy in terms of bench scoring. Young’s 16 obviously led the way, but Johnson finished with 8, Russell with 3, and Joey Brunk with 2.
The Buckeyes, who will surely be ranked when the latest AP Poll comes out this week, will next take to the court on Wednesday, Dec. 8 at 9 p.m. ET when they host Towson. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.