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Breaking down the puzzling final four minutes of Ohio State’s loss to Illinois

I’ve never seen a team absolutely sabotage themselves the way the Buckeyes did on Saturday afternoon.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State’s game this past Saturday against Illinois was not a must-win game in any sense of the word. The Buckeyes needed help from Wisconsin or Indiana to jump up to the 4-seed and secure a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament, so even a victory over the Illini wouldn’t have necessarily changed anything. In terms of the NCAA Tournament, Ohio State looks to be locked into a 2-seed as long as they win at least one game in this week’s conference tournament. A victory over Illinois wouldn’t have changed that.

But from an emotional perspective, the Buckeyes did not want to roll into the conference tournament riding a four-game losing streak. That would put big time pressure on them to win a game or two in Indianapolis, so that they don’t enter the NCAA Tournament as losers of five in a row. Just for the sake of feeling good and having some confidence, it was a game that would’ve been absolutely huge for them to win.

Things didn’t start out great, as Illinois jumped out to a 30-22 lead with seven minutes to go in the first half. But to Ohio State’s credit they fought back, and went to the locker room at halftime down just four, 41-37. Illinois shot better than 60% in the first half, and Ohio State’s All-Big Ten performer E.J. Liddell was barely visible in the first 20 minutes. All things considered, they were fortunate to still be in the game.

Ohio State tied the game at 41 just 1:24 into the second half, and from there on, neither team would hold a lead greater than five points for the rest of the game. The two teams went back and forth, with neither able to pull away from the other. Duane Washington Jr.’s layup with 4:42 remaining gave Ohio State a 65-61 lead, but from there things began to unravel. A series of poor defensive possessions and dumb shots on the offensive end doomed the Buckeyes in the final few minutes — and man it was ugly.

I’ve seen some bad Ohio State teams, but what made this collapse noteworthy was the complete disregard for the time remaining in the game or the personnel the Buckeyes had on the floor in those closing minutes. Some of the shots were very questionable, and that is putting it nicely.

As Kent Murphy likes to say, let’s take a minute to break the final four minutes down from a fundamental standpoint.

How it all went wrong

4:11, 65-64 Ohio State

After Washington’s layup gave the Buckeyes a four-point lead, Illinois brought the ball down but struggled to find an open look. On a bad handoff the ball was knocked out of Ayo Dosunmu’s hands, and he dove towards the baseline for the ball. He secured it and appeared to slide a foot or so, causing Ohio State’s bench to scream for a travel. No travel was called, and Dosunmu was able to hit Trent Frazier with a chest pass in the opposite corner while sitting down. Frazier canned the triple, and the lead was cut to just one point.

3:48, 68-64 Ohio State

On the very next possession, Washington brought the ball inside the arc, drawing multiple defenders to the paint and leaving E.J. Liddell wide open beyond the arc. Washington found Liddell, who promptly knocked down his third three-pointer of the day to give Ohio State a four-point lead. The Buckeyes would not score for the rest of the game after this.

3:14, 68-64 Ohio State

Justin Ahrens has been face masked for the past three weeks by opponents and has had a very hard time finding open looks, but in the closing minutes of this one he decided that defense be damned, he was hoisting one. Guarded by Dosunmu, Ahrens gave him one shot fake, dribbled to the right once and then took a very contested three-pointer from about two feet behind the line.

The shot was long, and Duane Washington was able to grab the offensive rebound. Washington decided to heave up a three-pointer of his own — the first of several bad shots he’d take in the final few minutes. His three-pointer was no good, and Kyle Young came down with the offensive rebound and got the ball back to Washington. Ohio State now had its third shot attempt of the possession coming up.

Despite the shot clock resetting, Washington used just three seconds before taking a contested one-legged runner that was no good, and Illinois was able to grab the rebound and take it the other way. The shot clock reset two times during that possession, and Ohio State could have used over a minute of game clock if they wanted. Instead, they took three rushed shots within 17 seconds, and came up empty. Illinois ball, OSU up just four.

2:29, 68-64 Ohio State

Andre Curbelo turned the ball over on the ensuing Illinois possession, and Ohio State elected to run some clock this time. After working the shot clock down to nine seconds, Washington tried to use a screen on the right side to roll to the basket, a very similar play to the one they ran in the closing seconds of their first meeting with Northwestern (it didn’t work then, either). The shot was contested at the rim, and Kofi Cockburn came down with the rebound. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s three shots Washington took in the span of roughly 45 seconds, none of which dropped for the Ohio State junior.

2:13, 68-65 Ohio State

On the very next possession, Ahrens fouled Dosunmu driving to the basket, and he was awarded two free throws. Dosunmu hit one of the two shots, cutting Ohio State’s lead to three points.

1:51, 68-65 Ohio State

After Dosunmu split the free throws, Ohio State brought the ball down the floor and found a wide open Kyle Young in the left corner with eight seconds remaining on the shot clock. Is Kyle Young a great three-point shooter? No, but 36% isn’t all that bad. Throw in the fact that he was wide open and it was senior day, and I have no gripes with this shot. If he nails it, Illinois is in a real tough spot and Young goes down the hero.

Unfortunately he did not nail it. The ball went in and out, and Illinois pulled down the rebound.

1:31, 68-68

After Kyle Young’s three didn’t go down, Illinois came down the floor and found a wide open Da’Monte Williams on the right wing, who promptly nailed the three-pointer to tie the game. Williams — who at 54.5% is the Big Ten’s best three-point shooter by percentage — was left completely wide open. It was a huge defensive breakdown by the Buckeyes, which is something that happens far too often with this team. Tie game.

1:06, 68-68

With four seconds on the shot clock, Washington hoisted another three, no good. I don’t recall the exact location/if it was a good shot, but I remember punching my coffee table, so it probably wasn’t. Cockburn grabbed the rebound for Illinois, still a tie game.

Washington shot count in the final four minutes: 0-for-4.

0:44, 71-68 Illinois

This was the play that sealed the game. On the very next possession, Ayo Dosunmu (who else) used a screen to break free and drive to the basket, where he was met by Justice Sueing. Dosunmu went up for the layup and drew the foul from Sueing, who was trying to draw a charge but instead was called for a block. Donsunmu finished the bucket and promptly hit his free throw to give Illinois their first lead in almost seven minutes.

0:25, 73-68 Illinois

After Donsumu’s clutch and-one layup, the Buckeyes came up empty on their offensive possession and were forced to foul Dosunmu, who had just corralled Liddell’s miss. Dosunmu went to the free throw line and knocked down both shots, giving Illinois a five-point lead.

0:00, 73-68 Illinois

Ohio State scrambled to the other end, and Washington chucked up a three-pointer with 17 seconds remaining that was no good. CJ Walker grabbed the long rebound and passed to Ahrens, who shot a three that was also long and came back out to Liddell. Liddell then tried his own three-pointer with four seconds left, no good. At this point Illinois knew the game was over and simply watched Ohio State miss wide open shots as the clock whittled away down to zero. Ohio State was held scoreless for the final 3:48 of the game.

Final thoughts

Ohio State has blown leads this season, but this loss was different. From clock management to just general awareness of who you have on the floor, nothing Ohio State did in the final four minutes made any sense. Liddell had 14 points in the second half, yet in those final few minutes, he took just one shot (not counting the desperation prayer at the buzzer). Whether it’s Chris Holtmann running plays to get Liddell the ball or Washington recognizing that he was most certainly not the hot hand, E.J. Liddell needed the ball in his hands at the end.

Duane Washington Jr. is a damn good player, but four of the five shots he took in the closing minutes were forced, as if he made the conscious decision that Ohio State was going to either win or lose on his shoulders alone. It simply did not make sense. The Buckeyes had a lead, their leading scorer was scorching hot, and the clock was on their side.

Part of the blame for the Buckeyes falling apart in the closing minutes falls on the coaches, too. Whether you physically remove Washington from the game or call a timeout to make it clear what the plan is, the shots Ohio State took at the end were all forced, while Illinois executed perfectly on their end.

Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa are all elite teams, and Ohio State won’t see a team of that caliber until they reach the Sweet 16 (hypothetically). There’s no reason to panic or doubt the Buckeyes’ potential in the NCAA Tournament based off these few losses. But Ohio State very much had this one in the bag, and they really could have used a victory to gain some positive momentum.