They didn’t start out like the #15 team in the country. But the finished looking like one…the Buckeyes regroup in the second half to choke the Penguins (Youngstown State).
Columbus – As Ohio State knocked down teams like a video gamer taking care of the bad guys in bang, bang, bang fashion in gaining the No. 15 national ranking, coach Chris Holtmann sometimes sounded like an Internet troll talking about his players.
The Buckeyes, he said after wins over Cincinnati, Creighton, Illinois and Minnesota, among others, had a long way to go. He nit-picked to no end.
Holtmann was annoyed when large leads were cut into against Minnesota and Illinois at the end of the first half. He was upset when that trend not only continued against Bucknell but cropped up at the tail end in a 73-71 escape act of a victory.
On Tuesday night against a Youngstown State team that has been picked to finish next-to-last in the 10-team Horizon League, Ohio State came out in a funk in trailing 9-0 and 14-2.
What the Penguins couldn’t cope with was 6-foot-9, 270-pound Kaleb Wesson, and he lifted Ohio State to a 75-56 victory with a career-high 31 points and seven rebounds before 12,637 at The Schott.
The second-year coach was somber almost to the point of appearing deflated by what he saw.
“We just have a really long way to go,’’ Holtmann said. “I’m certainly concerned. We didn’t play with purpose. We’ve got to get it fixed.’’
Before, he sounded as if a long way to go was over hill and over dale and having to hit some dusty trails.
Last night, though, Holtmann looked and talked as though his team had to scale a mountain.
What does he think about Ohio State needing to get hit in the mouth before playing with a sense of urgency?
“That we’re not mature enough,’’ he said. “That’s a recipe for disappointing losses. We’ll see if we learn. That reveals some maturity areas that we need to grow in.’’
Youngstown State (4-9) took a 14-2 lead on a three-pointer from the top of the key by Jelani Simmons with 13:55 left in the first half.
The Buckeyes slowly came out of it to get within 25-22 on a three-pointer by point guard C.J. Jackson with 10.6 seconds left in the half.
The plan in the second half was to feed Kaleb Wesson, and he feasted with a three-point play, a layup off a rebound and a layup off a reverse pivot as Ohio State led 39-31 a little less than six minutes into the second half.
What got the team’s blood flowing was Wesson drawing a charge with 17:35 left.
It was pretty clear what the outcome was going to be after Jackson swished a three-pointer from the side to make it 43-32 with 12:37 left.
Second-year Youngstown State coach Jerrod Calhoun said he was glad his players wouldn’t have to contend with a player like Wesson the rest of the regular season.
“We’re not going to see a guy like that in the Horizon,’’ he said.
Wesson, he said, is an old school big man who knows his place is underneath the basket.
“When you’ve got a guy like Kaleb Wesson – he’s a load – he makes the game easier for Coach Holtmann and those other four players who are out there playing with him,’’ Calhoun said. “He’s a monster. He’s really, really good. I’ve seen a lot of good games throughout the years in the Big East when I was at West Virginia, and that was as good a (second) half and as efficient a half as I’ve seen.’’
How good was Wesson in the second half?
He was 8-for-8 from the floor and 10 of 11 from the free throw line for 26 points.
“It was kind of a relief,’’ Wesson said of his second half. “At halftime our leaders got into us and said we weren’t playing with a purpose. We were out there playing possessions just to play. My teammates hit me in the right spots and they were making shots so (Youngstown State) couldn’t help out on me.’’
The bad part was Wesson admitted he needed a little boot in the behind to get going.
“I had to regain my focus and had to get chewed out a couple of times,’’ he said. “It’s not something I like. When that happened I felt like I had to step up.’’
Asked who did the chewing out, he said, “Everybody – one through 12 (players) and coaches.’’
Wesson, a sophomore, said he’s still taking baby steps in his development.
Jackson, a senior, responded with his second straight game of filling the stat sheet with 11 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. He had zero turnovers in 32 minutes, 47 seconds.
He said the Buckeyes had to bear down in the second half. The team did just that in making 19 of 27 shots.
“It was collective,’’ he said. “We knew we weren’t performing well. This group committed to playing defense. We had to get better.’’
Jackson said of Holtmann, “He got into us a little bit at halftime.’’
There’s not much time to get straightened out. Next up comes unranked UCLA (7-3) as part of the CBS Sports Classic at 3 p.m. Saturday at the United Center in Chicago.
Holtmann said the biggest plus was Ohio State having assists on 17 of 26 baskets and making eight turnovers.
“I can’t say I didn’t expect we’d have some moments (this season) where we didn’t have great understanding of how need to play given the number of new pieces that we have,’’ he said. “But we had a lot of moments like that in the game. Our first half was awful offensively. We didn’t impose ourselves offensively in the first half. We just didn’t play with purpose, and that’s on all of us, players and coaches.’’
No one, though, thought Ohio State would have zipped through the schedule with the only loss coming against Syracuse. This team has been picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten.
“Sure, absolutely, sign me up. I’m taking it,’’ Holtmann said of the record. “But as a coach you are way more concerned about how you are currently playing and addressing those areas that pop up where we’re not taking an appreciation of how that can damage your team. That’s what is going to keep me up at night.’’