Forward EJ Liddell scored a game-high 23 points and guard Duane Washington added in 21 as the No. 4 Buckeyes (18-4, 12-4) went on the road to Penn State and secured a 92-82 comeback win over the Nittany Lions (7-11, 4-10) Thursday night. Point guard CJ Walker scored 13 points and dished out seven assists in 30 minutes of play off the bench.
The Buckeyes shot 30-of-53 (.566) from the field and 11-of-20 (.550) from three-point territory, proving way too much for a Penn State defense that just didn’t have enough answers. Ohio State only had seven fast-break points. The vast majority of their offense came from ball movement and positioning. It was high-quality offense throughout for OSU, and it’s a good thing considering the Buckeye defense gave up 82 points.
As is the standard, EJ Liddell once again starred for the Buckeyes, scoring the aforementioned 23 points. He did it on 8-of-12 shooting, including 2-of-2 from three-point range. He added in five rebounds and only played 28 minutes because of foul trouble. When his team needed him, however, he was out on the court proving to be a difference maker. Liddell picked up his third foul of the game with OSU leading 49-47 with 17:38 remaining in the second half. By the time head coach Chris Holtmann reinserted him back into the game, the Nittany Lions were up 61-56 four minutes and 15 seconds later. How did the Buckeyes respond to Liddell’s return? They scored 13 unanswered points. Penn State never got closer than four points after that.
Trailing 61-54 with 14 minutes remaining in the game, Ohio State went on a 15-0 run over the next four minutes to take a 69-61 lead and grab control of a game that was slipping away. Duane Washington had a 3-point and 4-point play in that stretch. CJ Walker had four points and two assists, including a nice find to freshman Eugene Brown on the baseline for a three-pointer to cap the run. This run coincided with the return of EJ Liddell mentioned above. Liddell only scored one point in that run, but it was much more than coincidence that the two storylines intertwined.
Chris Holtmann was not happy with the Ohio State defense after the game, though the bulk of his disappointment was with the happenings in the first half. Lacking the necessary force and close-out quickness, the Buckeyes gave up 43 points on 15-of-28 shooting in the first half. Penn State moved the ball well, piling up nine assists on their 15 field goals. Things got much better for the Buckeye defense in the second half, but surprisingly Penn State only scored four fewer points than they did in the first half. The Nittany Lions shot 12-of-32 from the field in the second half and 5-of-15 from three. Some of the tough looks they were hitting in the first 20 minutes weren’t having the same quality ending in the second half.
The Buckeyes have three true veteran guards on this team, and all three were tremendous against Penn State. Duane Washington played under control, scoring 21 points on 6-of-9 field goal attempts. It was as efficient as he has ever been. He was also 4-of-5 from three-point range. His two turnovers were another indicator of being under control. Starting backcourt mate Justin Ahrens added in nine points on 3-of-7 shooting from three-point land. All nine of his points came in the first half, including a buzzer beater at the half to give OSU a 47-43 lead. Ahrens also added in four rebounds in just 20 minutes of play. Sixth man CJ Walker was fantastic throughout this game, hitting a couple of big shots with the shot clock winding down. Walker had just one turnover to his seven assists.
The Box Score
— Lot of respect for this Penn State team. They are a difficult matchup for the Buckeyes. “I love the leadership (on Penn State).”
— “Our bench really carried us and players win games. Our players made plays offensively.” They need to coach the team better defensively.
— They didn’t close air space quickly enough in the first half and weren’t physical enough. But Penn State also made some tough shots. “We didn’t challenge enough shots.” They had to change their ball screen coverage, which helped.
— CJ Walker plays 25-30 minutes a night, which is what he did when he started. “We’ve got six starters.” “He was tremendous tonight. On both ends.” How well he is playing is a statement about his character. He understands winning and has great maturity.
— Duane Washington has gotten more efficient and you saw that tonight. There are times he struggles. He had a couple of twos that Holtmann didn’t like in the second half.
— Holtmann thinks Seth Towns will be fine. “We are really banged up. We are. I almost had to pull Kyle.” Musa Jallow is banged up. “We need a really good day in the training room tomorrow.”
— Regarding the John Thompson towel he was sporting tonight, he mentioned a number of icons that have been lost this year in Lute Olsen, John Chaney, John Thompson, and more. He grew up watching those teams but also watched as a guy who wanted to be a coach. His towel fell on the floor a number of times so he wasn’t able to wear it as well as Thompson.
— They will talk more about Michigan tomorrow. He’s only watched them a little bit and they are a legit national title contender.
— You just try to survive in the Big Ten. “That was a tough one.”
— Penn State flies in from all angles to rebound offensively. It makes it difficult to box out.
— “In games like this, you’re led by your older guys.” EJ Liddell is now an older guy and he felt good about putting him back in with his foul trouble.
— It’s critical to have older guards. They have been through so many of these moments already. Plus, CJ Walker and Duane Washington are fearless. They also understand what “winning possessions” late look like. Young guys don’t necessarily understand that.
— The two times Holtmann has been here previously the games weren’t close. This was a big win. They have such a gauntlet, so when you have a game that you can win late, you want to seize those.
— It was a challenge to stop Penn State’s offense because they were aggressive early and the Buckeyes weren’t communicating as well as they should have in the first half.
— They felt the momentum shift in the second half and they have confidence in themselves to make plays happen.
— The belief in this team comes from the fact that they are deep and they know if somebody leaves the court there’s other guys around him who can pick up the slack.
— They’ll start thinking about Michigan tomorrow.
— How does he stay ready for whatever number of minutes he’s going to play? He does his same routine every day and whatever happens, happens. “We’re a good team and it’s hard to get all of the minutes you want.” He loves winning and knows minutes are tough when you have a great team.
— He’s been playing college basketball for a long time and he knew there were going to be runs in this game so he reminded the team to play it one possession at a time and keep fighting.
— The defense sparked the Buckeyes in the second half.
— His hand is getting a lot better. He does a lot of treatment each day. Getting more comfortable by the day. It doesn’t hurt as bad during games unless he lands on it or hits it a certain way.
— When he returned, Chris Holtmann sat him down and talked to him about coming off the bench and not screwing up what was going well. He’s still playing a lot, “so there was never any time to be selfish.” This is a good team and you try to contribute as best you can when you’re in the game.
— Michigan is the No. 1 team in the league and Sunday is going to be a big game. He has had this game circled. It’s a big game for the program.
[Duane Washington photo courtesy of the Ohio State Dept. of Athletics.]