After bumbling and stumbling down the stretch and losing three of their final four games, the Ohio State Buckeyes (19-11, 12-8) were looking forward to a fresh start in postseason play. After an emotional victory over Michigan State last week, the Buckeyes followed that up by laying a stinker at home on Senior Day against Michigan, losing their eighth conference game of the season, as well as the coveted double-bye in the conference tournament.
Instead of being in the top four and not playing until Friday, Ohio State entered this Big Ten Tournament as the sixth-seed, having lost tiebreakers to both Rutgers (4) and Iowa (5). They were rewarded with a matchup with No. 11 Penn State (14-16, 7-13) on Thursday night.
E.J. Liddell knows the circumstances are similar to last season’s tournament. “We made a nice run in the Big Ten Tournament last season,” he said following their loss to Michigan. “Hopefully we can get in there and do that against this year.”
Kyle Young was still being held out due to concussion protocol, but there was no announcement regarding Zed Key. Key was on the bench, but did not play. Without two of his best bigs, Chris Holtmann went with a lineup of Jamari Wheeler, Malaki Branham, Justin Ahrens, Liddell, and Joey Brunk. Brunk has averaged 13 points per game since Key injured his ankle against Nebraska on March 1.
First-year Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry went with a starting five of Jalen Pickett, Dallion Johnson, Seth Lundy, Greg Lee, and John Harrar. Pickett had 22 points and 7 rebounds for the Nittany Lions during their opening-round win over Minnesota.
The two squads combined to shoot 3-for-13 over the first five minutes of the game, with the Buckeyes taking an early 5-2 lead at the first media timeout. Despite holding Penn State without a made basket for the first 4:38 of this game, the Buckeyes did not take advantage on the other end and were unable to create any type of cushion in the first few minutes.
However, the Buckeyes were able to open up a 13-point lead following a Brown triple with 9:27 left in the first half — their largest lead of the game. But Penn State scored the next five points heading into the under-8 timeout to cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 20-12 with 7:52 left in the opening half.
From there, the two teams went back-and-forth and the Buckeyes took a 33-24 lead into the locker room on the back of a dozen first-half points from Liddell. Branham contributed across the board as well, with 6 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists. As a team, the Buckeyes shot 44.4% and were 5-of-9 from beyond the arc.
Penn State was led by Sessoms’ nine first-half points. The Nittany Lions shot 32% from the floor in the first half and hit just 25% of their attempts from beyond the arc.
The Buckeyes withstood an early Nittany Lion run in the early stages of the second half, watching their nine-point lead dwindle down to a one-possession game by the under-16 timeout. But thanks to big buckets from Liddell and Branham, Ohio State was able to push it back to nine points at the 11:57 mark.
From there, Penn State started to see some shots fall, but they were struggling to stop the Buckeyes at the other end enough to mount a comeback for much of the second half.
After trailing by seven-to-nine points for the next several minutes, Sessoms hit back-to-back paint jumpers — one of which was of the marvelous, spinning variety — to make it a one-possession game 51-48. Sessoms — along with Pickett — were the two players that Ohio State struggled to contain down low. Ohio State’s lead fell back down to three points with 7:34 remaining.
Penn State took their first lead of the game on a Seth Lundy three-pointer with 5:57 remaining, and the Nittany Lions officially had Ohio State scrambling. The aggressive, connected defense from the first half did not carry over, as Penn State knocked down seven out of eight shots at one point, while the Buckeyes stalled on the other end. Despite being up by double-digits at one point, the Buckeyes never held a commanding lead during the game, but the seven-to-nine point safety net they had for 35 minutes finally broke towards the end.
The Buckeyes and ‘Nits kept us all on our toes in the closing minutes, with the game staying within one possession for most of the final three minutes. But the Buckeyes weren’t able to collect themselves and make the comeback, falling to 11th-seeded Penn State, 71-68.
Liddell’s 25 points led the team. Branham had 16 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. Ohio State shot 44.2% from the floor overall, but that end of the court is not where this team’s major flaws lie.
Sessoms’ 18 points led Penn State, who had three other players (Harrar, Pickett, and Dread) score in double digits. Penn State shot 61.5% in the second half after shooting just 32% in the first half.
If you weren’t around to catch all of Penn State’s first round upset, here are some of the crucial moments and plays that led to the Buckeyes’ opening-round exit at the hands of the Nittany Lions.
Early E.J. Onslaught
Liddell carried the load early for Ohio State in the opening minutes, scoring 10 of their first 15 points. The soon-to-be NBA draftee put the team on his back, taking seven of the team’s first 14 shots, including knocking down both of his three-point attempts. At the under-12 timeout, the Buckeyes led by double digits, 15-4.
Brown makes it a baker’s dozen advantage, but PSU swings back
Leading 17-7 with 9:27 left in the first half, the ball found its way to Brown on the left wing for a wide-open three. PSU sagged back, as Brown has been struggling lately from deep. After sizing up Myles Dread, Brown let it rip, giving Ohio State a 20-7 lead.
But moments later, however, a Liddell turnover led to a buried Dread three-pointer. On the very next PSU possession, Sam Sessoms barreled into Wheeler below the basket without a foul being called. Sessoms laid up the easy bucket to get Penn State back within eight, 20-12, with 8:38 remaining in the opening stanza.
Brown would go on to finish with three points and three rebounds in 13 minutes.
Harrar gets on the board
Harrar averages a double-double (10.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game) this season, but the Buckeyes did a pretty good job keeping a lid on him during the first half of tonight’s game. Trailing 24-16 with 4:13 remaining in the first half, Pickett found Harrar on a perfectly executed pick and roll near the elbow for an easy layup, cutting the Buckeyes’ lead to just six points, 24-18. It was Harrar’s first bucket of the night, and to that point, he had only grabbed three rebounds.
Liddell’s FTs make it a nine-point halftime lead
Leading 31-24 with seven seconds remaining in the first half, it looked like the Buckeyes were going to hold for the final shot of the opening frame. But Liddell drove to the basket and was fouled by Lundy, giving him two free throws, but also guaranteeing Penn State one more possession before the half.
Liddell knocked down both making it 33-24 Buckeyes. Penn State was able to get Harrar a good look below the basket before the buzzer, but it was contested by Liddell and clanged hard off of the front of the rim. Harrar was able to grab his own rebound and take a one-legged jumper from near the free-throw line, but it was no good.
For the second straight game, the Buckeyes went into the halftime break with a lead. Tonight, it was 33-24.
Liddell’s and-one halts Penn State-run
The Nittany Lions outscored Ohio State 12-6 over the first few minutes of the second half, cutting their nine-point, halftime lead down to just three at the 15:00 mark.
With Penn State charging and the Buckeyes on their heels, Liddell received a pass from Wheeler on the baseline near Ohio State’s bench. He took two dribbles, spun around, and shot a fading jumper just in front of the three-point line. It was from an awkward angle and was contested by Lundy, but it dropped, giving Liddell his 15th and 16th points of the game. He hit the ensuing free throw, making it 42-36 Ohio State with 15 minutes remaining.
Liddell finished with 25 points on 6-14 shooting. He also had eight rebounds and two blocks in 37 minutes.
Sessoms gets Penn State within three
Trailing 51-44 with 9:27 to go, Sam Sessoms got a floater to drop over the top of Branham to pull the Nittany Lions back within five, 51-46. Two possessions later — following a Branham turnover — Sessoms went to the paint again, pivoting and spinning into a fadeaway jumper. He buried it, and Penn State cut OSU’s lead to 51-48 with 7:50 remaining.
Sessoms finished with 18 points on 7-12 shooting over 29 minutes.
Dread’s triple ties it
After Branham missed a three-pointer on the Buckeyes’ end of the floor, Dread received a pass from Pickett on the right-wing near the Penn State bench. He pump-faked and got Liddell in the air, and then buried the triple once E.J. had flown by him. The basket tied the game at 53 with 6:35 remaining.
Dread finished with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals over 31 minutes.
Lundy gives Penn State their first lead of the game
After Dread tied it on the previous possession, Liddell was fouled below the basket, giving him two free throws. Liddell hit one of them, giving the Buckeyes a one-point lead.
But Lundy hit his first three-pointer on the ensuing PSU possession, giving Penn State their first lead of the game, 56-54, with 5:57 remaining. Lundy would go on to finish with seven points on 2-9 shooting over 34 minutes.
Harrar’s second-chance slam breaks the dam
Trailing by two points with 1:25 remaining, Ohio State was able to contest Harrar’s dunk below the basket, forcing a miss and what we all thought would be a Buckeye defensive rebound. But Harrar was able to corral his own miss, and slammed it home immediately, giving Penn State a 66-62 lead with 1:23 left in the game.
After starting out slow, Harrar finished with 12 points and 9 rebounds over 32 minutes.
Ohio State (19-11, 12-8) awaits their NCAA Tournament seeding after losing their fourth game out of their last five. Most bracket predictions have Ohio State receiving somewhere between a six and eight seed. The Selection Sunday show will take place on CBS following the Big Ten Tournament title game on Sunday, and the Buckeyes will play in the first round either Thursday or Friday.