No. 23 Ohio State (18-9, 11-7) was out muscled, efforted, and rebounded during their 75-60 loss to Maryland on Sunday afternoon in College Park. If that introduction sounds familiar, it’s because it should be. It’s exactly how I described the Buckeyes’ loss to Iowa just over a week ago. It’s a trend that has reared its ugly head several times this season — Ohio State in position to win a basketball game, but lackadaisical effort costs them a victory. Unfortunately, those effort-based losses are what kept them from claiming a share of the Big Ten title this season.
But Tuesday night was an opportunity to bounce back and entrench themselves as a top-four seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. After a tough loss, a home game vs the Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-21, 3-16) sounded like a recipe for a pick-me-up. The last time these teams met, Malaki Branham dropped a career-high 35 points in an 87-79 overtime victory in Lincoln. Looking back on the first matchup between these squads, two things were crystal clear: Ohio State did not want to be taken to overtime again by the Big Ten’s worst team, and Nebraska did not want Branham to make them look foolish again.
Luckily for Nebraska, neither of those things happened.
Chris Holtmann rolled with the same lineup he’s used the past few weeks, sans an injured Zed Key. Jamari Wheeler and Branham started at guard, while E.J. Liddell, Gene Brown, and Kyle Young manned the three forward positions.
The fighting Fred Hoibergs went with Alonzo Verge, Bryce McGowens, Trey McGowens, Lat Mayen, and Derrick Walker.
After spotting Maryland an early eight-point lead this past weekend, you’d assume that the Buckeyes would come out strong early on against Nebraska, right? Well, think again. The Huskers knocked down three of their first six shots tonight en route to an early 9-6 lead at the first media timeout. The Buckeyes were controlling the glass on both ends, but shots just weren’t dropping early.
Eventually the lid came off the basket, and the ball found its way through the basket for the Bucks. The Buckeyes went on a 7-0 from the 13:55 mark to 12:26, taking their first lead since the early stages of this tilt. Nebraska was returning it on the other end, however, and only trailed OSU by three points at the under-eight timeout, 28-25.
Nebraska took the lead back on a Bryce McGowens jumper with 5:12 in the half, and carried that into halftime, leading 43-39. The Buckeyes allowed the Big Ten’s last-place team to shoot 55.6% in the first half, and 50% from three-point land. Their offense was clicking for the most part, and both Branham and Liddell scored in double-digits in the first half, but it was quite possibly the worst 20 minutes of defense Ohio State has played this season.
But oh, there was more to come.
Nebraska was the aggressor in the second half, coming out and extending their slim lead to double digits by the 15:00 mark. After taking an elbow to the head early in the first half, he did not return, leaving the Buckeyes down Young and Key. Nebraska made quick work of the Buckeyes’ thin frontcourt, scoring at will early in the second half. At the under-12 timeout, the Huskers held a 58-50 lead.
Nebraska — Bryce McGowens, mostly — kept coming at the Buckeyes, and they had no answers on defense. The teams went back and forth in the second half, but going bucket-for-bucket when you’re down 10 points is not how you overcome a large deficit. At the under-eight timeout, the Buckeyes trailed 64-55.
That trend continued for the final several minutes, with Ohio Sate mostly going blow for blow with the Cornhuskers, unable to cut into their lead. When the final buzzer blew, the Buckeyes had fallen to the last-place team in the conference, 78-70.
Nebraska was led by McGowens’ 26 points on 8-15 shooting. Liddell led Ohio State with 27 on 7-17 shooting, and also had 14 rebounds. Ohio State players not named E.J. Liddell shot a combined 15-40.
If you weren’t around to catch Ohio State’s brutal loss in its entirety, here are some of the crucial plays and moments that carried Nebraska to their third conference win of the season.
Liddell gets it going
After leading this one early, the Buckeyes fell behind to the Cornhuskers at the first media timeout, and trailed for another three minutes until Liddell went on a 5-0 run by himself, giving the Buckeyes a 13-12 lead. He was the only one able to hunt his shots early, knocking down 4-6 shots over the first eight minutes, totaling nine points. Branham followed up Liddell’s elbow jumper with a mid-range shot of his own, giving the Buckeyes a 15-12 lead at the under-12 media timeout.
Welcome back, Jimmy Sotos!
Typically a “Welcome back!” infers that someone was hurt and made a triumphant return. In Sotos’ case, he just hasn’t played lately. His last made basket came on February 15 vs Minnesota, and he has registered four straight DNP’s since then. For whatever reason, Holtmann plugged Sotos in early tonight, shortly after the first media timeout. In seven first-half minutes, Sotos scored three points on his only shot attempt and also registered an assist and a steal. His three-pointer at the 10:14 mark gave Ohio State a 23-19 lead.
It is interesting to note that those minutes typically would go to Meechie Johnson or Cedric Russell. Sotos finished with 8 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists over 23 minutes.
Bryce McGowens reclaims the lead for Nebraska
Trailing by one point with just over five minutes remaining, McGowens had back-to-back buckets for Nebraska, with a Buckeye miss sandwiched in the middle. Those four points turned a one-point deficit into a three-point lead late in the second half, 33-30.
Wilcher feeling it early
Xavier transfer C.J. Wilcher was Nebraska’s most efficient scorer in the first half with 13 points on 5-6 shooting, including three triples. He had eight straight points for the Cornhuskers at the 7:52 mark, cutting Ohio State’s lead to just three points. His layup with 4:05 remaining in the first half extended Nebraska’s lead to three points, 35-32.
Wilcher finished with 15 points on 6-11 shooting over 33 minutes.
Is this your Big Ten freshman of the year?
There’s been a ton of people jumping on the Branham hype train in the last week or two, and for good reason. But McGowens — the leading scorer among B1G freshmen — outscored Branham in the first half. McGowens scored 12 points on 3-7 shooting, including a 5-0 run by himself at the end of the first half that gave Nebraska a seven-point lead. Branham had 10 points on 4-8 shooting in the first half, and finished the game with 16 points. McGowens finished with 26.
McGowens pushes the Husker lead to double digits
Leading by eight points with 15:36 remaining, McGowens swished a long two-pointer from the right side to extend Nebraska’s lead to a game-high 10 points, 53-43. With Young and Key both out with injuries, former walk-on Harrison Hookfin had entered the game for a short time, officially putting Ohio State in the danger zone.
That’s all, folks!
The Buckeyes stayed within arm’s distance for pretty much the entire game, but even on made baskets that got them back within four or five points, they gave up a bucket at the other end nearly each time. Nebraska only had a 5-7 point lead for much of this game, but it felt like a whole lot more.
No. 23 Ohio State (18-9, 11-7) welcomes Michigan State (19-9, 10-7) to the Schottenstein Center Thursday night for their second-to-last game of the season. The once-ranked Spartans have lost five of their last seven games, but one of those two victories was a 68-65 victory over then-No. 4 Purdue this past Saturday. The Buckeyes will continue to fight for the coveted double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament next week. Michigan State is likely just looking for a confidence boost heading into the NCAA Tournament after a lackluster second half of the season.
The Buckeyes’ game against MSU is the only regular season meeting between the two teams this season. The game tips off at 7:00 pm ET and will be broadcast on ESPN.