Freshman point guard scores 16 points as Buckeyes rally past Northwestern … Listless most of the night, Ohio State has strong final 10 minutes … NCAA tourney hopes not dead yet.
Columbus – Beleaguered point guard JaQuan Lyle has had an erratic season for Ohio State, and his travails may have been weighing on him as the team was thoroughly out-played Tuesday in the first half by Northwestern.
The 6-foot-5 freshman was flapping his arms in frustration and raging at his teammates — behavior that didn’t escape the attention of coach Thad Matta.
“JaQuan and I had a one-sided conversation at halftime, and I was leading the charge on that,” Matta said. “I give him credit. I think he responded in the second half. He had very good control of what he was doing and was giving off positive energy, which was good for us.”
Lyle scored 13 of his game-high 16 points after halftime to lead the Buckeyes to a 71-63 win before 11,376 fans in Value City Arena. His corner 3-pointer with 3:29 left broke a 56-all tie and was part of a 32-15 run over the final 10 minutes.
His contributions couldn’t have come at a better time. The Buckeyes have desperately needed someone to run the show, and Lyle, though more suited to play the two guard, seems to have been handed the job only because the team doesn’t have a better option.
He was coming off a 27-point game at Wisconsin and had just the fourth triple-double in program history against Rutgers. Yet in the five games between those showings he averaged four points with 13 total assists and 14 turnovers.
But he was just what the Buckeyes needed in crunch time.
“JaQuan grew up tonight,” Matta said. “He was not very good in the first half in terms of his poise and being a point guard. We had a long discussion at halftime, and everyone kind of got an earful. That (3-pointer) was a big shot for us. Guys hit really, really big shots down the stretch.”
Northwestern has long had a battle cry to make all the losses to lesser-academic institutions in the Big Ten more palatable: Beat us now, work for us later.
That doesn’t apply these days, if it ever did. The gap between the Wildcats and other conference schools is narrowing in the class room. It’s also not nearly as wide as it once was in the big-budget sports.
The Buckeyes certainly can attest to that. They looked on the verge of losing at home to the Wildcats for the first time since 1977 — a span of 34 games.
They had nine field goals in the first 20 minutes — nine — and needed an accidental bank shot by Jae’Sean Tate at the buzzer to reach that figure.
But despite trailing for most of the night, the nation’s sixth-youngest team (no seniors, one junior) hounded the Wildcats into mistakes with a 1-2-2 press and converted at the free-throw line to erase a 48-39 deficit midway through the second half.
The Buckeyes, who are dead last in the Big Ten in foul shooting (65.3 percent), made their final 16 attempts, including 12 straight starting at the 2:40 mark. They finished 19 of 23.
The press was an even bigger a factor. And it was more of a desperation move than a pre-planned ploy by Matta.
“We were in a little bit of a scramble mode, and I thought it could be effective,” Matta said. “I didn’t think it would be quite THAT effective.
“Truth be told, they got six points off it where we didn’t quite get matched up. But I think the reward was worth the risk we took, and I think it got them out of their rhythm.”
The Wildcats (16-9, 4-8 Big Ten) had 14 turnovers, the Buckeyes (15-10, 7-5) just five.
“I thought we had the game in our control. But they did a good job. They got into their press in the second half, and we had some critical turnovers. It sped us up a little bit,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said.
“I’m just disappointed because I thought we were in a great position to win the game. I thought it was played at our tempo. We were in a really good rhythm. We were confident. The crowd wasn’t really into the game like it can be here. When you have a chance like that, you have to finish the deal.”
Ohio State players have been talking for weeks about putting it all together at long last and earning a bid to the NCAA tournament. Of course, practically any school with a winning record at this point is making those same proclamations.
But the Buckeyes just might have the makings of a team deserving to be part of March Madness.
I love their long-armed “bigs.” They’re still raw on offense, but they’re causing opponents fits inside because of their wingspans. This group isn’t buying many suits straight off the rack.
The Buckeyes are 15th in the nation out of 351 teams in blocked shots per game (5.6), 56th in scoring defense (66.3) and 22nd in field-goal-percentage defense (39.4).
And that front-court is starting to acquire the right mindset.
“I felt like the biggest thing is we had to wake up,” center Trevor Thompson (12 points, nine rebounds) said of second-half surge. “Like coach Matta said to us, we had to lose ourselves in playing for Ohio State and lose ourselves in playing for the team. In the second half, we did a good job of enjoying ourselves and playing as a team.”
As for the NCAA tourney, the Buckeyes have plenty of potential résumé-builders coming up. They play at Rutgers on Saturday and should prevail (everyone beats Rutgers), but then the schedule turns difficult before the Big Ten tourney: Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa at home and Nebraska and Michigan State on the road.
Athletic front-court players alone won’t be enough to get it done. They’ll also need a savvy point guard to navigate that daunting stretch.
Lyle could be just the guy … as long as he plays like he did after that one-sided conversation.