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Ohio State’s furious rally comes up short in NCAA Tournament loss to Villanova

The Buckeyes’ NCAA Tournament run came to an end on Sunday afternoon despite a strong second half effort.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Ohio State vs Villanova Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Seven-seed Ohio State (20-12, 12-8) was a major underdog in today’s second round bout with two-seed Villanova, but you don’t need to tell the Buckeyes that. They’ve considered themselves underdogs since the NCAA Tournament began, even saying on Friday that they felt “disrespected” heading into the big dance.

“People have been counting us out big time,” Liddell told the media on Friday. “People have been doubting us. We’ve gotta play with an underdog mentality and just keep playing that way.” Liddell has a point. The Buckeyes were the only seven-seed who were not favored to beat their 10-seeded opponent in the opening round, and nearly every talking head in the media picked Loyola-Chicago to win their first game. Instead, the Buckeyes advanced.

Playing the scrappy underdog role again today, the Buckeyes were tasked with beating a program that’s won more national championships in the last eight years than the Buckeyes have won in the history of their program. A team that’s won six-straight games, including three straight to win the Big East. And a team led by future Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright.

Chris Holtmann — coaching against his very close friend Wright — went with a starting lineup of Jamari Wheeler, Malaki Branham, Gene Brown, E.J Liddell, and Kyle Young. Villanova countered with Collin Gillespie, Justin Moore, Brandon Slater, Jermaine Samuels, and Eric Dixon.

The Buckeyes had a few open looks early — including two three-point attempts from Brown — but they weren’t dropping, and the Wildcats took a 7-3 lead into the first media timeout with 15:17 left in the first half. Three different Wildcats scored, whilst Liddell was the only Buckeye to score in the first five minutes.

The Wildcats had opened up an eight-point lead by the under-eight media timeout, thanks to an aggressive, pesky defense that was effectively locking up everyone not named Liddell. E.J. had seven of Ohio State’s first 15 points, but all other Buckeyes combined for 3-of-12 shooting over the first 12:29. Villanova, on the other hand, got multiple buckets form Dixon, Daniels, and Gillespie in the early going.

By halftime, Villanova had opened up an 11-point lead, 33-22. If it wasn’t Gillespie backing down OSU’s guards like Bill Russell, it was Samuels or Dixon getting to the rack or knocking down contested threes. The Wildcats shot 52% overall in the first half and out-rebounded the Buckeyes, 19-11. Ohio State shot 38.5% in the first half, but most of it was Liddell — who had 12 points in the first half. Buckeyes not named E.J. combined to score 16 points on 6-of-19 shooting (31.5%) over the first 20 minutes.

The first “four-minute war” of the second half is always telling, and the Buckeyes lost those first four minutes today. They were outscored 8-5 over the first 15:52 of the second half, with Liddell picking up his second and third personal fouls. Young was not nearly as impactful as he was against Loyola, and Ohio State was simply getting nothing from anyone other than Liddell and Branham in this game.

But Branham — in what could have been his final game in scarlet and gray — had other ideas. He turned on the jets over the next eight minutes, scoring 11 points and getting the Buckeyes back within six points at the 8:55 mark. Ohio State suddenly had life after being shut down for the majority of the game.

But despite the late rally, Villanova closed the door in the final moments. The Buckeyes cut the lead to just two points with five minutes remaining, but Gillespie and Dixon had huge baskets to close this game out for the Big East Tournament Champions, 71-61.

Gillespie led Villanova with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting over 38 minutes. Samuels, Dixon, and Daniels all scored in double digits as well. Branham led Ohio State with 23 points and four assists. Liddell added 17 points and six boards in his final game donning an Ohio State jersey.

If you somehow weren’t able to catch all of Ohio State’s season-ending loss to Villanova today, here are a few moments and plays that helped the Wildcats avoid the upset and send them to the Sweet Sixteen yet again:

Meechie bails out the Buckeyes

Trailing 9-4 with 14:18 remaining and with only a Liddell basket to their name so far, the Buckeyes’ offensive possession was going nowhere, and the ball found Johnson’s hands near the NCAA logo. When the shot clock hit two, Johnson hoisted and canned it, cutting Villanova’s lead to 9-7.

Johnson finished with three points, two rebounds, and an assist over 16 minutes.

Gillespie makes it a 10-point game

After Johnson cut the Villanova lead to two points, the Gillespie scored eight-straight on his own to give the Wildcats an early 10-point lead. Ohio State had no answers for the All-American early on, as he scored 10 of Villanova’s first 17 points.

Gillespie finished with a team-high 20 points and four assists over 38 minutes.

Samuels gives ‘Nova their biggest lead of the game

Already leading 30-20 with four minutes remaining in the first half, Samuels connected on a on a long three-pointer from the left wing to push it back to double digits, 33-22. After giving up a ton of points to Gillespie early, the Buckeyes started keying in on him, but other Wildcats picked up the slack.

Samuels went on to finish with 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals over 32 minutes.

Kyle Young things ™ gets the Buckeyes back within nine

Already trailing 48-33 with 14:28 remaining, Wheeler hoisted a logo three-pointer as the shot clock expired. It was no good, and the rebound came down to Samuels — or so we thought. Young sprinted to it and was able to get two hands on the ball with Samuels, and in the scrum Samuels went out of bounds. The ball went back to Ohio State, and Branham hit a jumper to make it 48-35.

After a stop at the other end, Young slashed to the basket with his right hand and sunk a floater, getting Ohio State back within nine, 48-37.

Moore bangs a triple, pushes the lead back to 12

After a Zed Key layup got Ohio State back within nine, Moore sprayed a three-pointer from the left wing over the outstretched arms of Brown to give Nova a 12-point lead once more, with 11:59 remaining in the game. Ohio State was starting to string together some buckets themselves, but each time they seemed to get within striking range, Villanova pushed them back.

Moore finished with eight points on 3-9 shooting over 29 minutes.

Branham’s jumper makes it a six-point game

Trailing by just eight now with 8:55 remaining, Ohio State got out in transition off a Villanova miss and Branham hit a long two from just inside the line on the right wing, getting Ohio State back within six points for the first time since the early stages of the first half.

Branham finished with a game-high 23 points on 10-19 shooting over 39 minutes. He also had four assists and two rebounds.

Young gets taken back to the locker room after taking hit to head

With about nine minutes remaining in the game, Kyle Young took a blow to the head and hit the deck. He sat there for a moment, staring at the ground, before Holtmann came out and sat down next to him. After speaking to the medical staff, Young was escorted back to the Ohio State locker room.

In 28 minutes, Young finished with six points, six rebounds, and one block in his final game as a Buckeye.

Wheeler’s triple gets Ohio State within two

Wheeler continued Ohio State’s hot streak in the second half by burying a three-pointer in Gillespie’s face with 5:39 remaining, cutting Villanova’s once-massive lead to just two points, 60-58. It was Wheeler’s first bucket of the day, and it was a huge one.

Wheeler finished with those three points over 32 minutes, as well as five rebounds and three assists.

Dixon, onions!

With their lead diminished to just five points with 1:27 remaining, Gillespie backed down a smaller Wheeler in the paint. Key made the decision to help on Gillespie, which left Dixon wide open on the left wing. Dixon stepped back and received the cross-court pass from Gillespie, and buried the three. Villanova took a 67-59 lead with 1:27 left in the game.

Dixon finished the game with 15 points on 5-9 shooting over 32 minutes as well as an assist, a block, and one steal.