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No. 4 Ohio State falls just short of No. 3 Michigan 92-87

That one was entertaining as hell, despite the outcome.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t the Ohio State-Michigan Week that we anticipated during the 2020-21 academic year, as the football edition of the greatest rivalry in all of sports was cancelled due to concerns over the coronavirus. However, this weekend marked an expanded Rivalry Week between the storied foes as they faced off in men’s hockey (the two teams split the series), women’s soccer (the teams tied after overtime), and on Sunday the Buckeyes and Weasels took to the court and field in a trio of matchups; women’s lacrosse, women’s basketball, and men’s basketball.

With the other two games still to be decided, the No. 4 men’s basketball Buckeyes (18-5, 12-5) fell to the No. 3 Michigan Meerkats (16-1, 11-1) on Sunday from the Value City Arena in Columbus 92-87. The game was the first time that the two teams had ever squared off as top-5 opponents, and the contest lived up to its epic-billing.

The two teams scored early and often and while the defense was left wanting at times, both teams proved that their national profile is absolutely deserved, and that both the Bucks and the other guys will undoubtedly be forces to be reckoned with in the postseason.

The two teams opened the game at a fevered pace as quick ball-movement and frenetic defense marked the early going. The speed of the action led to both teams leaving shooters open for nearly uncontested threes and early turnovers. TTUN’s Eli Brooks hit a pair of threes and OSU’s Duane Washington Jr. connected on a layup and once from deep, and the teams were tied at 9 when the game reached the first media timeout at 15:24.

From there, the two teams continued to trade buckets, but it was the deep balls that allowed the Fighting Hugh Jackmans to take an early lead. After a Washington — a Grand Rapids native — triple (more on that below), the Corn and Blue went on an 8-0 run thanks to a pair of three-balls from Chaundee Brown and a driving dunk from Hunter Dickinson.

With a 22-19 lead with 8:25 left before halftime, TTUN had connected on five of their seven attempts from behind the arc (71.4%). OSU was a respectable 3-for-7 (42.9%), but they were struggling to close out as there were far too many Ferrets left open from deep.

Despite the unrepentant shooting from the Mitten Staters, at the half the visitors led just 45-43. In the first 20 minutes, the good guys shot 17-for-32 (53.1%), while the evildoers from up north connected on 17-of-30 (56.7%). The story of the scoring though was what happened beyond the arc; TTUN went 10-for-13 (76.9%), while the Buckeyes were 6-for-13 (46.2%).

Following the intermission, C.J. Walker started in place of Justin Ahrens, who was 0-for-2 in the first 20 minutes. The second half played out much like the first half did, with one notable exception. The teams traded the lead back-and-forth, but OSU’s rivals did not shoot nearly as well from beyond the arc as they did in the first half.

As the regulation progressed, the referees decided to make their presence known as things kept getting tighter and more stressful down the stretch. Washington and E.J. Liddell had phenomenal games for the Buckeyes, both scoring the 20s and the big man collecting his third double-double of the season.

However, the pressure got to the home team a bit down the stretch as turnovers and fouls allowed TTUN to build a lead that the Scarlet and Gray couldn’t overcome. Washington finished as the game’s leading scorer with 30 points, and Liddell was next with 23 and 10 boards. Dickinson was the top Wolverine with 22.

One of the differences was the Walker (15) was the only other Buckeye in double-digits, while the visitors had five players with 10+ points. While the outcome was certainly disappointing, having watched the game, no one should be surprised if and when these two teams end up making noise in the postseason.

Reports of Duane’s demise have been greatly exaggerated

Over the course of three possessions, Washington flexed some impressive offensive muscles as the shot clock was winding down. After a scramble ended with the ball going out of bounds, Washington received the inbounds pass and with just three seconds on the clock, cut through the lane and delivered a smooth, underhand scooping layup to put the Buckeyes up 14-12.

Then after Zed Key hit an impressive hook shot and the Muskrats’ Austin Davis got a dunk on the other end, with the clock down around six seconds, Washington just shrugged off his defender and stepped back to hit a monstrous three-pointer to give the home team a 19-14 lead with 11:18 left in the first half.

After having a tough three-game streak in January, Washington has not only found his stroke as of late, but he’s found his confidence as well. Early in his career, Washington was exclusively a jump-shooter, but as of late — and especially on Sunday — he looked to get to the rim with impressive regularity.

The natural left-hander finished with both hands and bailed the Buckeyes out on a lot of possessions.

While the final minute of the game seemed to take about 15 real-time minutes, Duane used every available second to try and keep his team in the game, and to increase his point total. With just three seconds remaining, he hit his fifth triple of the game to give him his first 30-point game of his career.

Shooting is easy when no one guards you

As if they had made a deal with the devil, in the first half TTUN was practically incapable of missing from three-point land. They took 13 shots and connected on 10 of them. Their 76.9% shooting percentage from deep was absolutely absurd, especially when you consider that they entered the game shooting just 38.0% from distance this season.

Sure, there is the adrenaline of a top-5 matchup and of a rivalry game in play, but a not insignificant portion of that can be attributed to the fact that the Buckeyes struggled on rotations and closeouts for most of the first period, leaving the Mongoose shooters with open looks.

This often happened due to quick, crisp ball movement from TTUN that left OSU defenders over-helping on the backside. This often happened because the visitors never settled for contested shots, they made the extra pass on nearly every possession, allowing their shooters to have wide open shots.

Three of the five different Prairie Dogs who attempted threes were perfect from deep in the first half; Brown (3-3), Brooks (2-2), and Mike Smith (2-2).

However, things turned around after the break, as Warthogs only made one of their 10 attempts from behind the arc in the second half. But, it didn’t matter as they were able to outscore the Bucks in the second 20 minutes anyway.

E.J. came to play

In that back-and-back opening half, Washington and E.J. Liddell led the way for the Buckeyes. The big man from Belleville, Ill. was a force on both sides of the floor, and both inside and outside on the offensive end. He had 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including going 2-for-3 from deep. He also added four rebounds and a pair of assists.

Liddell’s ability to bang down low, but also to step out and shoot from distance made him a really difficult matchup for the TTUN big men. Starting center, 7-foot-1 Hunter Dickinson, could not keep up with the Liddell.

The 6-foot-8 Buckeye ended up having just his third double-double of the season, finishing with 23 and 10.

Things get chippy in rivalries

While the action was entertaining, it was also tense for fans and participants alike. From early on, it looked like Ohio State’s rivals wanted to get into a chirping match. After two of his early buckets, TTUN’s Brown decided to let the OSU bench know that he had just made a three-point goal.

The antics kept up as we moved into the second 20 minutes, as UM head coach Juwan Howard wanted to make sure that he was getting as much time in the referees’ ears as humanly possible.

Then, after Brooks inadvertently poked Washington in the eye, Howard decided that he was going to lobby for his player on the other side of the floor. OSU’s Chris Holtmann did not take kindly to the constant yapping from the visitors.

It’s been a long time since the OSU-TTUN rivalry has been competitive on the football field, but if we can see this kind of action and emotion between the men’s basketball teams moving forward, that could be an acceptable and exciting consolation prize to absolutely dominating Jimmy and the football Weasels.

Buckeye role players missing in action

The trio of Washington, Liddell, and Walker, was incredibly productive for the Buckeyes on the afternoon, but they were the only Buckeyes to score in double-digits and to make more than two field goals.

Ahrens was a disappointing 0-for-2 from the floor in just 14 minutes of action. While OSU shot well from deep without him, and his absence gave way to Walker having such a strong game, not having contributions from the Buckeyes’ sharpshooter was notable.

Likewise, Justice Sueing did not step up in his first action in the rivalry. He had just six points and three rebounds, and gave up a crucial turnover late in the second half that helped TTUN build an insurmountable lead.

The No. 4 Buckeyes will be back in action on Thursday, Feb. 25 in East Lansing, Mich. against the MSU Spartans. The game will tip off at 9 p.m. ET and will air on ESPN.