You won’t see too many “must-win” games for teams who have only played nine conference games, but Sunday afternoon’s tilt between the No. 16 Ohio State Buckeyes (14-5, 7-3) and the Maryland Terrapins (11-12, 3-9) was pretty close. Entering the day in fifth-place in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes are right on the cut line for a double-bye in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. On top of that, only 1.5 games separated second-place Purdue/Wisconsin (9-3) from the Buckeyes before games began.
Ohio State also doesn’t have the luxury of 10 home conference games like all of their Big Ten counterparts. After their home rematch with Nebraska on Jan. 22 was postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the Nebraska program, this past week’s home matchup with Iowa was postponed after the Hawkeyes’ plane couldn’t get off the ground Wednesday night. By the time repairs were made on Thursday, wintry weather in Ohio prevented the Hawkeyes from making the trip.
The three basketball programs and the conference are working to reschedule those games, but with only 31 days until the Big Ten Tournament — and nine games still on the schedule not counting the two postponements — wedging those games in without playing on back-to-back days is getting more and more difficult.
And while no game should be considered a “given” win, playing Nebraska (6-17, 0-12) and Iowa (14-7, 4-6) at home — where Ohio State is 10-0 this season — are both pretty friendly games for the Buckeyes... that they may not get to play. That made Sunday’s showdown with 12th-place Maryland all that more important in order for the Buckeyes to keep pace in the conference race.
The Terrapins have been one of biggest disappointments — if not the biggest disappointment — in the B1G this season. Maryland returned senior guard Eric Ayala, who was All-B1G Honorable Mention last season when he scored 15.1 points per game. They also returned starters Donta Scott (12.3 PPG, 6.3 REB) and Hakim Hart (9.6 PPG, 3.5 REB), while adding transfers Qudus Wahab (8.6 PPG, 6.3 REB) from Georgetown and longtime Rhode Island Ram Fatts Russell (12.9 PPG, 3.6 AST). Those returning faces, plus new ones, appeared to be one of the most well-rounded Maryland lineups since the days of Melo Trimble and Dez Wells.
Instead, the Terrapins have been a model of inconsistency, winning only a few conference games and losing head coach Mark Turgeon eight games into his 11th season at Maryland. Technically the NCAA Tournament isn’t impossible for them, but the game against the Buckeyes was just as important for them as it was for the home team.
The Buckeyes hadn’t played in a week thanks to the Iowa cancellation. Ohio State had a full six days to rest and prepare for the Terps after their buzzer-beating loss to Purdue last weekend. The Buckeyes fell behind by 20 points in that game before a rabid comeback tied it up with 20 seconds left. And then... well we all know what happened next.
JADEN IVEY DOUBLE ORDER OF ONIONS pic.twitter.com/cKoOZyUJUU— SLAM University (@slam_university) January 30, 2022
While rest and recovery is always a welcome sight for a team dealing with injuries, the constant start and stop of the season is making it difficult for the team to find a rhythm, according to assistant coach Jake Diebler. Well, with anywhere from nine to 11 games remaining over the final month, the Buckeyes are about to see the opposite side of the coin — a steady barrage of Big Ten battles.
The Buckeyes opened with a lineup of Jamari Wheeler, Meechie Johnson, Malak Branham, E.J. Liddell, and Zed Key. Eugene Brown (foot), Justice Sueing (groin), and Seth Towns (back) were all unavailable. Maryland countered with Russell, Ayala, Hart, Scott, and Wahab.
Ohio State jumped out to an early 17-6 lead thanks to big contributions from the youngsters — Branham and Key. The Buckeyes’ freshman guard had six points and a rebound over the first seven minutes, while sophomore big man Key had six points of his own. The Buckeyes were able to set the tone early despite Liddell not scoring his first point until the 13:15 mark of the first half.
Despite the slow start, Liddell finished with a strong first half, scoring 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field. But it was the early contributions from everyone else that set the tone, and Ohio State carried a 42-29 lead into the halftime break. As a unit they shot 61.5%, and also connected on five of their 11 three-pointers. Had they not given up seven offensive rebounds, the game likely would’ve been out of reach by the break. Scott had 10 first-half points for Maryland.
Maryland showed a little bit of resistance in the first half, keeping Ohio State within a dozen or so points. But the second half was a different story, as OSU quickly pushed the lead out to 22 points by the under-12 timeout. Seemingly every shot was dropping for Ohio State, headlined by big games from Liddell and Justin Ahrens.
Not only was Ohio State the better team, they also seemed to... care more? Maryland’s interest in competing wavered throughout the second half, but over the final 10 minutes they looked completely disinterested. When all was said and done, Ohio State had cruised to a 82-67 victory at the Schottenstein Center, keeping their perfect home record alive and keeping pace with the top of the Big Ten.
Liddell led Ohio State with 24 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists — all of which led the team. Ahrens and Key had 14 points apiece, and six other Buckeyes scored. Scott had a great game for Maryland, scoring 25 points and grabbing 6 rebounds.
If you weren’t able to catch all of today’s Big Ten action in Columbus, here are a few of the moments that mattered:
Battle of the bigs... early
The Buckeyes and Terrapins chose to attack the paint early, and it led to the two teams combining to shoot a very efficient 7-of-12 over the first four minutes of the game. Key had six early points plus a rebound, while Maryland’s 6-foot-11 center Wahab had four on 2-of-3 shooting early. It’s always the goal in basketball to find the highest-percentage shot possible, but the first few minutes on Sunday were literally just both teams taking turns getting their bigs the ball. Ohio State led 9-6 at the first media timeout.
No E.J., no problem
With 12:01 remaining in the first half and Ohio State leading 18-12, Holtmann checked Liddell out of the game for a breather and went with a lineup of Cedric Russell, Branham, Justin Ahrens, Kyle Young, and Joey Brunk. At times this season, the offense has gone stagnant without their star player, but not today. In addition to great collective defense, the Buckeyes scored seven unanswered points (an Ahrens three and a Brunk layup) on the other end to extend the lead to 25-12. When Scott hit a free throw to make it 25-13 at the 8:38 mark, Liddell came back in with his team now up double digits.
Fatts Russell cuts it to single digits
With 2:44 remaining in the half, Maryland’s Fatts Russell took advantage of Young being switched onto him by driving to the basket past the bigger and slower Young. He was met at the rim by our favorite new #GirlDad, and drew the foul. Russell hit one of his two free throws, cutting Ohio State’s lead to just nine, 38-27. Russell finished with 12 points on 5-15 shooting plus six rebounds and five assists.
Is he.... is he back?
Ahrens’ struggles shooting the ball have been one of the dominant topics of conversation the last few weeks — and for good reason. The once-deadly three-point sniper had hit just 10 of his last 43 three-point attempts (23.2%) dating back to mid-December. He lost his spot in the starting lineup and only played 11 minutes last week against Purdue.
Today, Ahrens played nearly that many minutes in the first half alone, hitting both of his three-point attempts during the first 20 minutes. His six first-half points were the most he’d scored in any game dating back to Jan. 6 at Indiana.
Ahrens finished with 14 points on 14 points on 4-7 shooting — the most he’s scored since December 8 versus Towson. He also grabbed three rebounds.
Masked Meechie makes it a 22-point lead
After Julian Reese hit one of two free throws to cut Ohio State’s lead to 19, Johnson hit a three-pointer not far from the scorer’s table to bust it open and make it 58-36 Buckeyes with 14 minutes left in the game. Johnson finished with seven points, four assists, and two rebounds. He had the highest +/- of anyone on the floor at +20.
Russell & Scott give ‘Terps a glimmer of hope
Down 21 points at the under-12 timeout, Maryland looked disinterested, tired, and ready to go home. The ‘Terps had given up on several hustle plays, allowing Ohio State to expand on their already large lead. But with 10:47 remaining, Fatts Russell and Scott hit back-to-back three’s, cutting the Ohio State lead to 15, 65-50.
Liddell’s triple halts Maryland’s momentum
The Terrapins flipped a switch with about nine minutes remaining, as Ayala and Scott started hitting three-pointers for the first time all day. The Terrapins hit 6 of their 15 threes in the second half, and trading three for two helped them cut Ohio State’s lead to just a dozen points.
But with 3:49 left to go, Liddell knocked down a three-pointer from straight-away, giving OSU a 77-62 lead in the closing minutes.
Ahrens’ knockout punch
With 3:11 remaining in the game and OSU up 77-64, Justin Ahrens chose to shoot a three with 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock — rather than working the clock down to kill time. He canned it from just in front of Ohio State’s bench, giving the Buckeyes an 80-64 lead.
No. 16 Ohio State (14-5, 7-3) hits the road and will face Rutgers (13-9, 7-5) at the RAC Wednesday night at 7:00 pm E.T. The Scarlet Knights are coming off a huge 84-63 win over No. 13 Michigan State Saturday afternoon, and are 11-2 at home this season. This will be the only meeting between the two teams in the regular season. The game will be broadcast on BTN.