The No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes traveled west to a snowy Iowa City to take on the No. 8 Hawkeyes on Thursday night in what would easily be described as the biggest game thus far in the 2020-21 season for Chris Holtmann’s squad.
In what turned out to be an entertaining-as-hell offensive slugfest, the Buckeyes picked up their biggest win of the season (imo), and their fourth road win over a top-15 opponent. The Buckeyes held off a surly bunch of Hawkeyes to secure the W by the score of 89-85. Not only will that move the Buckeyes to No. 3 in the Big Ten conference, but also should be another significant line on an already impressive tournament resume. With the victory, the Buckeyes became the first team in college basketball this season to secure five wins over ranked opponents.
The visitors from Columbus raced out to an early eight-point lead going up 20-12 with 11:35 left in the first half. However, thanks to a 10-0, Fran McCaffery’s crew took a lead, and the two offensive powerhouses battled back and forth in the first half to the tune of a baker’s dozen worth of lead changes before halftime. Led by strong early performances from Justice Sueing (10 points), E.J. Liddell (7), Duane Washington Jr. (7), Zed Key (6), and Zed Key (6), it was a one-possession game when the teams retreated to the locker room, with the Hawkeyes up 45-42.
Immediately after halftime, Iowa hit a couple of threes and capitalized on a few OSU mistakes to take a 53-45 lead less than two minutes into the period. However, after a rough opening to the half, Ohio State’s offense turned the scoring corner and completely erased the double-digit Hawkeye lead, taking a one-point lead into the final 10 minutes of regulation.
These two offenses continued trading blows, combining to shoot 61-for-133 (45.9%) from the floor and 28-for-64 (43.8%) from beyond the arc. There were a total of 18 lead changes and the two teams had a 40:12 assist-to-turnover ratio. The teams were evenely matched all night, finishing with the same number of turnovers (6), offensive rebounds (11), steals (4), and assists (20). They also each shot an identical 14-for-32 from downtown.
And after a rocky start, Ohio State’s best marksman stepped up late in the second half to give the Buckeyes some much needed firepower. After missing his first four attempts from distance, Justin Ahrens hit back-to-back threes to give OSU a four-point lead with 3:40 remaining. In all, the team hit on four-straight three-point attempts to put a little distance between themselves and Iowa. However, since this is Ohio State men’s basketball, nothing can be easy. Missed free throws and uncharacteristic turnovers closed the gap to 88-85 in favor of the good guys with 35 seconds remaining. However, some Globetrotter like dribbling from C.J. Walker effectively secured the win, and another impressive notch on his team’s belt.
Now that you know the skeleton of what happened in the contest, let’s put some meat on those bones and take look at a few of the keys that led to the favorable outcome for the Buckeyes.
A Game of Runs
Above you read about the runs that created and erased OSU’s first half lead. Things did not change after the break. In the first 20 minutes of game, the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes both shot exceptionally well; OSU was 17-for-35 (48.6%), Iowa was 16-for-34 (47.1). However, after the teams came out of the locker room, OSU struggled hitting just one of their first seven attempts from the field in the first 6:22 of the second half.
Conversely, during that same period, Iowa went 6-for-10 and built a double-digit, 61-50 lead 5:31 into the half. However, it was the visitor’s turn to make a run, as from there, the Buckeyes raced out to a 12-2 run cutting the deficit to just one with 12:10 left in regulation.
During those final dozen minutes of the game, the two teams continued to hit impressive shot after impressive shot, exchanging blows like a pair of heavyweights who understand that the best way to win the fight was to keep throwing (figurative) blows.
The game remained close down the stretch, and both teams proved that they can play with anyone in the country. I am no bracketologist, but I would not bet against either of these teams in the Big Dance.
Iowa’s Luka Garza is the prohibitive favorite to win the National Player of the Year and he is leading the world, averaging 26.5 points per game. Standing at 6-foot-11 and tipping the scales at 265 lbs., there is no natural defensive matchup for the Buckeyes.
So, Holtmann threw a handful of OSU’s “bigs” at Garza, with Kyle Young and Key doing the heavy lifting. Despite the big man being one of three Hawkeyes to put up 11 in the first half (along with Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge), he did it on 4-for-5 shooting. So while the Buckeyes weren’t necessarily limiting Garza’s points, they were limiting his opportunities.
The second continued at pace, with Garza going 2-4 in the first 12 minutes of the half. He was clearly important to Iowa’s success in the game, finishing with 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting, but he was far from dominant.
OSU’s defense-by-committe on the big man held him to more than 10 points under his season average and his lowest output of the season.
Kyle Young Doing Kyle Young Things
It’s been an up-and-down season for senior forward Kyle Young, but on Thursday night, dude stepped up when his team needed him the most and lived up to the leadership mantle that he inherited from Andre Wesson.
Not only was Young 5-for-6 from the floor, but he was a perfect 4-for-4 from the free throw, and he hit two pretty three-pointers. As mentioned above, he was instrumental in keeping Garza as under control as possible.
For the game, the Buckeyes were +15 with Young on the floor, the only player in the game to have a plus/minus above 7.
And most importantly, Young was his feisty, gritty self, forcing turnovers, picking up rebounds (6), and forcing jump balls.
Like just two months after his high school graduation, 17-year-old freshman Meechie Johnson Jr. had an early impact in the biggest game of his young collegiate career. In the first 20 minutes, Meechie was 2-for-3 from distance, and he showed absolutely zero fear in the face of considerable opposition.
Meechie’s offensive injection helped stymie an Iowa run and allowed OSU to close the gap heading into halftime.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell just how good an Ohio State team is. Chris Holtmann almost always has his teams ready to play defense, but without a transcendent star in many a year, the Buckeyes have felt destined to be a grind-it-out squad capable of pulling an occassional upset and finishing in the top third of the B1G, but not a team capable of putting together a deep tournament run.
There’s still a long way to go before anyone cuts down the nets in Indianapolis, but this deep, talented, and hungry group of Buckeyes just might have what it takes to do something special in the most unusual of seasons.