Winners of three of their last four and coming off a dominant second half against St. Francis last weekend, the No. 25 Ohio State Buckeyes (7-2, 1-0) welcomed the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (6-3, 1-1) to Columbus Thursday night to kick off Big Ten play. Steve Pikiell’s squad knocked off No. 14 Indiana 63-48 over the weekend, starting Big Ten play 1-0. Ohio State entered this game trying to start 1-0 in conference play for the second-straight season.
This matchup featured Rutgers’ top-10 defense (No. 6 according to KenPom) versus Ohio State’s top-five offense. The Scarlet Knights have also proven to be an elite team playing at home in recent years, but have a combined record of 12-31 (.279) playing away from the RAC over the last four seasons.
The Scarlet Knights, who defeated Ohio State last season in their lone matchup of the year, went with a starting five of Cam Spencer, Caleb McConnell, Mawot Mag, Aundre Hyatt, and Cliff Omoruyi. Chris Holtmann countered with Bruce Thornton, Sean McNeil, Justice Sueing, Zed Key, and Brice Sensabaugh — who started in place of Isaac Likekele, who was away from the team due to a personal matter back home in Texas.
Rutgers did, in fact, continue that trend of struggling away from home, falling to the Buckeyes 67-66 Thursday night at the Schottenstein Center. It was a brutally physical game that stayed within one possession each way for the final 15 minutes, keeping the fans on the edge of their seat for the entire second half. But despite trailing by two points with five seconds left, the Buckeyes were able to score in the closing seconds and escape with their first conference win of the season — courtesy of a huge game-winning three-pointer from Tanner Holden.
Despite coming into the game as the worst three-point shooting team in the Big Ten at just over 31%, the Scarlet Knights began the game by knocking down three of their first four triples. Steve Pikiell’s team took an early 11-8 lead thanks to long-distance makes by Spencer, Hyatt, and Mag. Rutgers was especially going after Sensabaugh, who’s shown real chops on the offensive end but to this point of the season has struggled on defense.
However, the Buckeyes blindsided Rutgers out of that first media timeout, scoring seven-straight points in 63 seconds to turn an 11-8 deficit into a 15-11 lead. Pikiell called timeout to try and halt their momentum, despite it being only 68 seconds after the forced media timeout. By the 12:00 mark of the first half, Ohio State had a 19-14 lead over the Scarlet Knights.
The Buckeyes opened their lead up to as many as 11 points during the first half, but Rutgers ended the first half on a 9-0 run to close that gap down to just two points by the halftime buzzer. The Buckeyes did not score over the final four minutes of the first half, but still led 31-29 heading to the locker room. Zed Key led all scorers with 15 first-half points, as well as eight rebounds and a block. Spencer led Rutgers with nine first-half points.
The lead changed hands four times over the first eight minutes of the second half, with Omoruyi providing Rutgers’ first nine points of the second stanza. Four Ohio State freshmen played at the same time for a stretch, and by the under-12 media timeout the Buckeyes led by a single point, 47-46. Rutgers’ full-court press and aggressive style of defense were making Ohio State’s guards uncomfortable, especially Thornton, who was bothered by McConnell throughout.
The two teams more or less went bucket-for-bucket over the next six minutes, with the Scarlet Knights holding on to a 55-53 lead with 6:11 remaining in the game. Key and Omoruyi seemed to switch places after the halftime break, with Ohio State’s junior big man being held in check for quite some time while Omoruyi slammed home dunk after dunk after dunk for Rutgers.
The two teams stayed within two points of each other each way for the majority of the second half, trading one-possession leads over and over and over. The lead changed hands six times over the final 6:11, with the most consequential being Holden’s game-winner that put Ohio State ahead for good, 67-66.
Key led all scorers with 22 points on 9-12 shooting, plus 14 rebounds. 22 points was his new career-high, and his 14 rebounds ties his career-high, which he had done twice previously. Sensabaugh and Thornton both scored in double-digits as well. Omoruyi led Rutgers with 16 points — 14 in the second half — plus eight rebounds and two blocks.
If you didn’t catch Ohio State’s Big Ten opener tonight on ESPN2, here are some of the big plays and moments that swung the game:
Key on both ends
At 6-foot-11 and nearly 250 pounds, Omoruyi has been developing for two years at Rutgers but is playing the best basketball of his career this season, his junior year. The ball was forced down to him on Rutgers’ first possession of the game this evening, but despite being three inches shorter than his counterpart, Key was able to get up and send Omoruyi’s shot packing for his first block of the game.
Moments later, with the game tied 2-2 early, Omoruyi gave Key a bit too much space at the top of the key. Key knocked down his fourth three-pointer of the season to give the Buckeyes a 5-2 lead 1:47 into the game.
Rutgers making it rain?
Rutgers entered tonight’s contest as the worst three-point shooting team in the Big Ten, knocking it down from distance at a clip of just 31.3%. The Scarlet Knights only have two players who shoot better than 37% from distance — McConnell and Spencer. So naturally, Rutgers knocked down three of their first four three-point attempts — one apiece from Spencer, Mag, and Hyatt — to take an early 11-8 lead.
They cooled down considerably after that, however, hitting 2 of their final 13 to finish 5-17 (29.4%) from deep. Not a single Scarlet Knight hit more than one three-pointer.
Buckeyes bum-rush Rutgers out of the timeout
After surrendering the lead to the Scarlet Knights for a brief moment, the Buckeyes scored on three consecutive possessions after the first media timeout. From 15:07 to 14:06, the Buckeyes got a three-pointer from McNeil, a layup from Key, and an authoritative dunk from Key to take a 15-11 lead, and Steve Pikiell called timeout as the crowd roared.
Story of two first-half bigs
After holding his own against the biggest team in the country last week at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Key had 15 first-half points tonight against Rutgers — mainly battling with Omoruyi below the basket. While Key had maybe his best half of basketball in his career with those 15 points and 8 boards, Omoruyi struggled mightily. The junior big man from Nigeria had just two points on 1-3 shooting over 12 first-half minutes.
Roles flipped in the second half, as Omoruyi scored Rutgers’ first nine points of the second half and still finished with 16. Key had seven points in the second half.
Rutgers ends the first half strong
Right when it looked like the Buckeyes had this game completely under control, Rutgers re-asserted themselves on the defensive end, holding Ohio State scoreless over the final four minutes of the half. They forced the Buckeyes into four turnovers during the final four minutes before the break, and used that to fuel a 9-0 run to end the opening stanza.
Had Ohio State just kept things even over the final few minutes, they could’ve gone into the locker room up double digits. Instead, Rutgers knocked the Buckeyes square on their rear with a sucker punch between the eyes, and OSU led by just two points at halftime.
Omoruyi puts the Knights on his back to start the half
After a very poor first half where he scored just two points, Omoruyi put his team on his back when they needed it the most, scoring nine points over the first 5:02 of the second half to keep up with the Buckeyes. Omoruyi was the only Rutgers player to score during the first five minutes of the second half, and his nine points matched Ohio State’s nine points during the opening minutes to keep it a two-point game.
Thornton beats the buzzer to escape the jam
With Ohio State trailing 44-42 and just over 13 minutes remaining, Ohio State had four freshmen (Thornton, Sensabaugh, Roddy Gayle, and Felix Okpara) on the floor along with Tanner Holden. The Rutgers defense had tightened quite a bit, and Thornton had the ball near the “Value City Arena” logo on the right wing, about 12 feet beyond the three-point line.
With absolutely nothing going and the shot clock at two, Thornton hoisted a deep three from that spot over the head of Mulcahy, and he drilled it to give the Buckeyes the lead back. Holtmann kept the mostly-freshmen lineup on the floor for a few more minutes before pulling Thornton in favor of Sueing, but the young guys held their own and didn’t let the game snowball out of hand.
Sueing’s triple reclaims the lead with five minutes left
Sueing’s had an up and down season thus far, struggling in several games but also mixing in a 33-point effort at Maui that showed just how talented the sixth-year forward is. He’s shot the ball miserably from long-range this season, especially considering he shot 36.1% from downtown just two seasons ago.
This season Sueing entered the game shooting a paltry 16% from three-point range, but he knocked a clutch three-pointer from the corner with 5:15 left in the game to give Ohio State a 56-55 lead. It was just his fifth triple of the season.
Omoruyi’s thunderous and-one slam
Immediately after Sueing gave the Buckeyes a one-point lead, Spencer found Omoruyi on the back end of a pick play for a wide open, left-handed dunk that darn near bent the rim. He was also fouled by Sueing, but Omouyi missed the free throw and Rutgers’ lead was only a single point with 4:45 left, 57-56.
Sensabaugh bangs a three for the lead, but Key’s moving screen wipes it away
Sensabaugh knocked down a clutch three-pointer to give the Buckeyes a 62-59 lead with 2:41 remaining, but Key was called for a moving screen below the basket at the same time and the basket was waived off. The ball was given back to Rutgers following the turnover, and Mulcahy immediately took the ball the other way and scored on the ensuing possession, giving the Scarlet Knights a 61-59 lead.
Omoruyi’s clutch block
Ohio State went for the win in the closing seconds, with Sensabaugh taking a step-back one legged floater from about six feet away from the basket — not a bad shot, considering the circumstances. However, his shot was sent flying by Omoruyi, and and Mulcahy collected the rebound. Sensabaugh had to foul, sending Mulcahy to the line.
After the game, Holtmann noted that the play call was the same as the one that gave E.J. Liddell a game-sealing bucket over No. 1 Duke last year at home. E.J.’s “green bean” as many called it.
Tanner Holden! Onions!
After McConnell missed a free throw with five seconds remaining that could have made it a three point game, Thornton brought the ball up the right side and was somehow able to slither around McConnell and pass to Holden right in front of the Ohio State bench. Holden — who was scoreless before that shot — knocked down an absolute prayer for the win, 67-66. After the game, Holden said that he couldn’t see over Mag, and didn’t know it went in until he heard the crowd.
No. 25 Ohio State (7-2, 1-0) gets eight days off before heading to NYC to face a struggling North Carolina Tar Heels team on Saturday, December 17. UNC, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation and last season’s national runner-up, has lost four consecutive games and is now unranked at 5-4. The game between Ohio State and Carolina is part of the CBS Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden. That game will be broadcast on CBS and is set to tip off at 3:00 p.m. E.T.