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Ohio State fends off Rutgers second-half charge, holds on to win 76-72

The Buckeyes absolutely did not make it easy on themselves in the second half, but held on to advance to 2-1 in Big Ten play.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

With the non-conference portion of the schedule in the rearview mirrow, the Ohio State men’s basketball team (12-2, 2-1) welcomed the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (8-5, 0-2) to the Schottenstein Center on Wednesday evening to resume Big Ten play.

Rutgers entered Wednesday night’s game ranked No. 241 in offensive efficiency in the nation, and have scored 80 points in just two of its 12 games this season — against Howard and Long Island. To say the Scarlet Knights struggle scoring the basketball would be putting it lightly, but they make up for it on the other end, ranking the top-20 in defense in the country. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, are once again in the top-25 in offense and have their highest defensive rating since the 2019-2020 season. They’ve scored 78 or more points in eight of the last 10 games, but faced a stiff test against Rutgers’ long, athletic frontcourt Wednesday night.

Eighth-year head coach Steve Pikiell went with a starting lineup of Mawot Mag, Derek Simpson, Noah Fernandes, Aundre Hyatt, and Cliff Omoruyi — the same lineup he employed in the Scarlet Knights’ 59-58 win over Stonehill Saturday night. Chris Holtmann also stayed with his same starting five — sophomores Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle, Evan Mahaffey, and Felix Okpara alongside senior forward Jamison Battle.

Speaking of Battle, the fifth-year senior got the scoring started for the Buckeyes, knocking down two three-pointers before the first media timeout. After Ohio State went up 8-4, Simpson scored on back-to-back possessions for RU to tie things up 8-8 five minutes into the game.

After the Scarlet Knights took a one-point lead with 11:38 left in the first half, Ohio State responded with an 11-0 run over the next 3:49 to jump ahead, 30-20. With 7:50 remaining in the first half, the Buckeyes had a possession that started with a Battle drive, but then he kicked it out, sprinted back out to the perimeter, and the ball eventually got back into his hands on the third swing pass. He knocked it down from the right wing, screamed at the bench, and Pikiell was forced to take a timeout.

Gayle struggled mightily in the first half of this one, as he was held without a bucket on six shots in the first half. Battle and Thornton more than made up for his absence, however, combining for 32 first-half points (Thornton 15, Battle 17) as Ohio State enjoyed a 45-32 halftime lead. Jamison Battle was 5-of-7 from deep in the first half, while Thornton was 6-of-7 overall and 2-of-3 from beyond the arc at the halftime break. Simpson had 11 and Fernandes had 10 in the first half for Rutgers, which still shot a very respectable 43.3% over the first 20 minutes.

Mawot Mag knocked down two free throws with 15:12 left in the game to bring Ohio State’s lead back down to single-digits, 51-42. The Scarlet Knights came into this game as the worst free throw shooting team in the Big Ten at 64.7%, but knocked down seven of its first eight in this game at the line, and finished 12-of-14 from the charity stripe. By the under-12 timeout, Ohio State had stretched the lead back out to a dozen, leading 58-46 with 11:46 remaining.

Rutgers didn’t shoot it well in the second half, either, but the Scarlet Knights really began to lean on Ohio State and crash the offensive glass to give themselves bonus opportunities. After grabbing three offensive boards in the first half, Rutgers grabbed eight through the first 11:57 of the second half. After a missed basket with 8:03 remaining, Rutgers was able to secure the loose rebound and call timeout, with Ohio State still leading, 63-55.

Rutgers took care of the ball in the second half, and Ohio State did not. Rutgers was ruthless on the glass in the second half, and the Buckeyes weren’t. Despite both of those very bad things, the Buckeyes continued to make shots, even if it wasn’t at the torrid pace it did in the first half. Rutgers made a run and got within one point in the closing minutes, but the Buckeyes got a couple stops, made their free throws, and closed out Rutgers at home, 76-72.

Thornton paced all scorers with 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting over 37 minutes, and also had seven assists and four rebounds. Battle had 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including six three-pointers. Gayle had 11 points, seven rebounds, and two assists, but also turned the ball over four times. Derek Simpson led Rutgers with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting and also grabbed eight rebounds.

If you weren’t around tonight to see Ohio State pick up its second Big Ten win in three tries, here are a few key moments that helped push the scarlet and gray to victory:


Battle gets the scoring started

After knocking down a combined 10 three-pointers in his last two games, Battle kept on firing on Wednesday night, knocking down each of his first three attempts in the first five minutes of play. Through the first nine minutes of play, Battle was 3-3 shooting, and all of his teammates combined to hit four shots in that time.


Thornton’s uncharacteristic turnovers

Bruce Thornton has been a maestro with the basketball this season, turning the ball over just 11 times over the first 13 games of the season. He struggled early on against Rutgers on Wednesday night, however, turning over the ball three times in the first nine minutes of play. Two of the turnovers were on lobs to Battle and Okpara, making them completely unforced in nature.

Thornton checked out with 11:10 left in the first half after his third turnover, and sat for 2:10 before checking back in around the nine minute mark. Thornton would go on to dish out seven assists from this point onward, with no more turnovers.


Roddy Gayle... bathroom break?

With 4:29 left in the first half and Ohio State up 41-28, play was abruptly stopped in the middle of a Rutgers possession and Okpara subbed in for Gayle, who ran directly back to the locker room without any noticable limp or injury.

After some speculation that he might’ve had a Paul Pierce moment and needed to take care of business in the bathroom, Ohio State confirmed that Gayle went to the locker room to change shoes. The pair he was wearing was pinching his ankles, so he ran back to chance. He checked back in with 2:22 left in the game, but finished the first half with zero points on 0-6 shooting in 17 minutes.


Omoruyi makes an appearance

Cliff Omoruyi is Rutgers’ best player on both ends of the floor, entering this game as the team’s second-leading scorer, leading rebounder, and one of the best shot-blockers in the country. He was held in check in the first half of this game, scoring just one point over 14 minutes as Ohio State’s guards made it diffcult for Rutgers to even get him the ball.

But the fourth-year center from Nigeria immediately flexed early in the second half, getting to the free throw line nine seconds into the second half and then slamming home a cherry-picked dunk four minutes later to make it 51-40 Rutgers.

Omoruyi finished with seven points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes.


Have a game, Fernandes

Rutgers senior guard Noah Fernandes — a transfer from UMass — came into this one averaging 8.3 points per game and scored a total of 10 points over his last three games.

Fernandes was one of the more aggressive players for Rutgers, and wound up with 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting in this game — his second highest point total of the season. He got the best of Roddy Gayle below the basket several times with an up-and-under shot fake that you don’t see broken out by many 5-foot-11 guards.


Gayle, Fernandes trade huge shots

With 1:29 remaining in the game, Ohio State up 69-66, and the shot clock dwindling, Roddy Gayle took a three from the wing closest to Ohio State’s bench and canned it to put the Buckeyes up six points. It was his only three-point make of the night.

The crowd went wild, but 15 seconds later, Fernandes rose up and knocked down a deep three of his own to make it 72-69, and the Scarlet Knights were back within one possession once again.


Thornton’s free throws put Ohio State up five with 49 seconds to go

With 49.7 seconds remaining and Ohio State up 72-69, Bruce Thornton drove to the basket and was fouled by Rutgers’ Austin Williams. Thornton knocked down both shots, putting Ohio State up 74-69 in the final minute of the game.


Wedgie!

The home crowd wasn’t thrilled with the Buckeyes letting that 17-point lead slide all the way down to just one point, and fortunately there was a bit of comedic relief in store for everyone in the final 30 seconds.

After Thornton’s free throws put Ohio State up 74-69, Mawot Mag missed a layup but Simpson corralled the miss. He got the ball back out to Mag — a 22% three-point shooter — and he sent up a prayer with 24 seconds left in the game. The ball perfectly wedged into the crevice between the glass and the right side of the rim. The possession arrow belonged to Ohio State.

The P.A. announcer shouted “WEDGIE! OHIO STATE BASKETBALL!” and the crowd went wild.


Up Next

Ohio State (12-2, 2-1) has a quick turnaround before its next Big Ten tilt, which will come Saturday night at Assembly Hall against Indiana. The Hoosiers (10-3, 2-0) have had some close calls against mid-major teams at home this season, but to this point have avoided any big slip-ups.

Ohio State’s game against Indiana will tip off at 8:00 p.m. Saturday night and will be broadcast on FOX.