PISCATAWAY, N.J. – If there was one play that fueled a furious comeback for Rutgers, it came with 2:29 to play and No. 16 Ohio State clinging to a lead.
Four seconds of game time earlier, the Scarlet Knights got a driving layup from Geo Baker to whittle what had been an eight-point Buckeye lead to four. Rutgers called timeout and deployed its full-court press, but Ohio State was ready. Freshman guard Malaki Branham, who was leading the Buckeyes with 19 points, made a feint and sprinted upcourt, where he took a pass in stride and had nothing but daylight ahead of him.
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Streaking in, Branham rose up for the momentum-quenching dunk. He never felt the closing speed of Caleb McConnell, who used every bit of his 6-7 frame to roundly reject Branham’s dunk from behind. In response, a Jersey Mike’s Arena crowd that was already on the verge of pandemonium went ballistic.
It wasn’t the only shot Rutgers blocked. The Scarlet Knights finished with nine of them and rejected five of Ohio State’s final seven shots, but it was the one that made everyone inside the arena realize the comeback was on.
“That’s sticking in my head right now,” Branham told The Dispatch after the 66-64 loss. “I should’ve just laid the ball up instead of dunking it. Just getting points so we can get back on defense. Just a couple plays that’s going to stick in my head and that’s definitely one of them.”
As Branham said, there will be plenty that will haunt the Buckeyes after this one. With 3:48 to play, Ohio State had grown its lead to a game-high eight points at 64-58 and had largely quieted the Rutgers crowd. And when Baker missed a 3-pointer and Ohio State reclaimed possession, it had the chance to make it a three-possession game with a little more than three minutes to play.
Instead, Branham was stripped on a turnover that was credited to E.J. Liddell. Rutgers would score on its final five possessions to close out a 10-0 run and stun the Buckeyes.
“Give them credit,” Holtmann said of McConnell’s block. “It was a great play. I wanted him to attack and get there. It’s what we drew up. I thought he could get there. The kid just made a really good play.”
It typified how the final four minutes went. Against a Rutgers team that was allowing Big Ten opponents to shoot 42.2% from the floor, Ohio State was at 46.0% (23 for 50) before going empty on its final seven.
Holtmann said he didn’t feel the Scarlet Knights did much differently in the final four minutes of the game.
“I thought they were just swarming the ball,” he said. “Really physical. The momentum of the crowd, and honestly I thought there were some fouls that weren’t called. We just, at the end of the day you’ve got to be able to play through some physicality.”
For about 36 minutes, Ohio State seemed able to do that. When it mattered the most, though, it came up lacking.
“Give Rutgers credit,” Holtmann said. “You’ve got to give them credit for closing, making the block on the breakaway layup there and being able to get some stops when they needed to and being able to finish and get to the line.”
Although Ohio State’s offensive woes garner the headlines (the Buckeyes missed 11 of their final 12 shots and scored only four points during the final 7:49), its defensive issues were just as culpable. This was Ohio State’s third-worst adjusted defensive efficiency performance of the season, and it came against a Rutgers team that is ranked No. 126 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com.
In short: Rutgers is a team that grinds you out with its defensive physicality, not one that overwhelms you with offensive superiority. This was the third-best offensive efficiency margin of the season for the Scarlet Knights in Big Ten play.
“We’ve got to defend better,” Holtmann said. “We’ve got to defend better on another team’s home court, and we’ve got to help them do that as coaches and then we’ve got to be able to finish the game with a little more force than we did. That’s what’s in front of us.”
E.J. Liddell goes quiet in final five minutes
Liddell, Ohio State’s leading scorer this season, was held to just one shot attempt during the final five minutes of the game. It was blocked.
He finished with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting and added six rebounds, but after his putback was blocked with 2:48 to play Wheeler missed a shot, Branham missed three straight (two of which were blocked) and Ahrens’ final attempt at the horn was partially blocked.
With 15.4 seconds left and trailing 66-64, Ohio State called timeout and drew up a play that led to Liddell feeding Branham for a shot. Once that was knocked out of bounds with 3.2 seconds left, Ohio State didn’t execute its final action properly and wound up with the contested Ahrens shot in the corner.
Liddell is the team’s most valuable player. He’s the leading scorer, a legitimate All-America candidate and in the running for Big Ten player of the year. After he got just one field-goal attempt in the final five minutes, Liddell said he had no issues with the final two shots taken by the Buckeyes.
“I always want the ball in those moments, but I’m a team player,” he said. “I felt like they were bringing a crowd every time I touched it, so I went with what coach called. I felt like what coach called was good looks. They made good defensive plays. Justin might’ve got fouled on the last play.
“I’m about the team, and coach felt like those were the right calls in that moment and I did as well. Tried to tie the game up, tried to win the game. That’s fine. Not going to go against what coach says, but I always want the ball in that situation. I’m a team player.”
Baker, who led all scorers with 25 points, was a nightmare for the Ohio State defense. He was 9 for 14 from the floor, 3 for 7 from three, perfect on four free-throw attempts and scored 8 points in the final 3:07 to power the comeback.
“He was in the zone,” Branham said. “He was making tough shots. Just try to make him miss.”
Holtmann downplayed the notion that the Buckeyes needed more from Liddell in the late minutes of this game.
“It’s not on E.J.,” he said. “We’ve got to find ways to get him to spots and get him the ball in spots. We knew they were going to come and trap and swarm but I thought he, for the most part on that end, did a lot of good things. We’ve to help him there.”
Meechie Johnson exits with ankle injury
It was on this court that Johnson, who should have still been a senior in high school, made his Ohio State debut last season after graduating early and enrolling mid-season. That game, played in front of no fans, saw Jimmy Sotos go down with a shoulder injury in the final minutes that would end his season.
This time, Johnson went down hard while playing defense and had to leave the game early. With the Buckeyes ahead 57-52 and 8:15 to play, Johnson’s left foot landed on teammate Zed Key’s foot and he crumpled to the floor as Clifford Omoruyi wound up with a wide-open dunk.
Johnson limped to the bench with assistance, eventually walked to the locker room under his own power and returned to the bench but did not re-enter the game.
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“It impacted our depth,” Holtmann said of Johnson’s absence. “I think we had other guys that could step up. Forced us to play some unique lineups, our lack of depth here with a number of guys that we have out. Obviously we want to get him back as soon as he’s healthy enough to do that.”
Asked if he had a timetable for that, Holtmann said, “I don’t know right now.”
Johnson did walk out of the arena without crutches or assistance.
By the numbers
*Zed Key finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds for his second career double-double and first of the season.
*Rutgers outscored Ohio State 17-3 on fast breaks.
*The Buckeyes led the game for 23:20.
*The game had 16 lead changes and was tied 13 times.
*Ohio State had won four straight games against Rutgers.
“We’ll learn from it and move on. It’s a tough place to play. There’s a lot of good teams that have come in here and really struggled. Right now, I’m not in the mood to assess anything other than we’ve got to find ways to help them get better.” – Holtmann
“I just felt like they made some shots and the crowd got a little loud and they felt confidence and that just built momentum for them. I don’t think it was anything we did on the defensive end. They made some tough shots. I felt like they built off what the crowd was giving them.” – Liddell
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism