Guard Paul Scruggs and forward Jack Nunge were the difference in Xavier’s 71-65 win over Ohio State as both players dropped a team-high 14 points and combined for 20 rebounds and a number of timely baskets to keep the Buckeyes at bay.
Ohio State suffered its first loss of the season and now moves to 3-1. They were led by forward EJ Liddell’s 17 points. Freshman guard Meechie Johnson added in a career-high 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Liddell also posted eight blocks and seven rebounds.
It was a sloppy start for the Buckeyes and it lasted the entire first half. Ohio State shot just 10-of-30 over the game’s first 20 minutes and they only made matters worse by turning the ball over nine times.
Starting guards Jamari Wheeler and Justin Ahrens combined for zero points in the first half, but freshman guards Johnson (9 points) and Malaki Branham (7 points) stepped up to keep things from getting too far out of hand early.
After leading 36-27 at the half, Xavier pushed the lead to 11 almost immediately, but a Kyle Young layup and seven points from Liddell cut the lead down to five points at 40-35 with 14:48 remaining. Xavier built it back up to 11 points but a switch to a 2-3 zone then began to stifle the Musketeers, allowing Ohio State to cut that lead down to five at 54-49.
The one block that Liddell couldn’t get, however, was a left-handed dunk by Scruggs, making it 67-62 with 25 seconds remaining and essentially ending the Buckeyes’ hopes.
Ohio State shot just 23-of-61 from the field (.377) and got outrebounded 43-35.
Road Game Jitters
It was pretty obvious early on that this was Ohio State’s first road game of the year, and despite having a number of veterans, they didn’t handle the situation all that well. The Buckeyes turned it over nine times in the first 20 minutes and probably could have had a few more. They fought back throughout the game, which was definitely a positive sign, but there were times when it was clear that the situation simply caught up with them. This will end up being a great experience down the road, provided they take the lessons from this game and apply it to future road outings.
The Buckeyes were struggling to score in the first half and shots were not falling. Rather than rely just on jumpers, however, freshman guards Malaki Branham and Meechie Johnson were also attacking the basket and they were effective in doing so. They combined for 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting in the first half, including 3-of-4 from three-point territory. Branham also took some of that aggression to the defensive end early in the second half, poking away a dribble that eventually became a turnover at 37-26 for the Musketeers. For the game, Johnson scored 14 points and Branham added seven, going scoreless in the second half. Branham had a number of decent looks over the game’s final 20 minutes, including some drives that he just couldn’t finish. There is little doubt that Holtmann will tell him to remain aggressive because eventually those shots will start falling.
The Buckeyes Are Balanced At Least
Unfortunately, balanced in this case means not good enough offensively or defensively to withstand droughts on offense or runs on defense. And mounting their own scoring runs is difficult for so many reasons. This is going to be an ongoing process, especially as Justice Sueing remains unavailable for the foreseeable future. Seth Towns may be available in a month or so, but that won’t fix anything in the backcourt. Patience is going to be required as much of the fortunes of this team rely on Meechie Johnson and Malaki Branham to go through some growing pains as any offense they can get out of Jamari Wheeler and Justin Ahrens will be a bonus. Wheeler is shooting well enough this season to be more than a fifth option.
This Team Still Has A Long Way To Go
The Buckeyes had a very difficult time of keeping Xavier from driving and getting to the basket, which is why EJ Liddell ended up with eight blocks. The on-ball defense needs to continue to improve, including from Jamari Wheeler, who was brought to Ohio State with the promise of being a shutdown defender. Judging a team by a road performance in November is a fool’s errand. It’s clear where this team has issues, but they continued to fight and they cut the lead to three points in the final minute. Had the Musketeers not had a large number of offensive rebounds from three-point shots come right to them, this game may have ended differently. But it didn’t. Chris Holtmann is still working on lineups. Players are still defining their roles. And through it all, there are a couple of freshman guards who are going to continue to improve and make everything a little more flexible in the future. It should also make things more tolerable, even if the results aren’t as such.
The Box Score
[Header photo courtesy of the Ohio State Dept. of Athletics.]