The Buckeyes simply played better, survived an intense road environment, and beat Nebraska on the road to snap their five-game losing streak.
Columbus – As the losses piled up like cord wood in the back yard, against Michigan State, Rutgers, Iowa, Maryland and Purdue, Ohio State players kept droning on about needing to make plays almost as if they were reading off a teleprompter.
The words came from C.J. Jackson, Andre Wesson and Kaleb Wesson in particular and gave the feeling they didn’t believe they could make any of that happen.
That’s what goes down when you get beaten down by a five-game losing streak, which was the longest since the Buckeyes dropped 17 straight in 1997-98.
On Saturday, they finally decided to do something about it against a Big Ten team that also has been fighting itself.
Freshman Luther Muhammad scored a career-high 24 points, Andre Wesson and Jackson each had 10 points and Kaleb Wesson had 11 rebounds for the Buckeyes in a 70-60 victory over the Cornhuskers before 15,890 at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln.
It was a lot more than numbers that got Ohio State (13-6, 3-5) out of the ditch at least until it plays mighty Michigan on Tuesday in Ann Arbor.
The “plays’’ the players kept talking about having to make came by the bundle, and we’re not talking about tomahawk dunks, alley-oop passes that result in dunks, blocked shots that land in the fourth row or no-look feeds.
The play that helped put away the Cornhuskers (13-7, 3-6) occurred when Jackson didn’t give up pursuing the ball during a wild scramble. He not only got his hands on the ball, but dribbled into the lane and hit an 8-foot floater to give Ohio State a 61-51 lead with 2:27 left to play.
Then Andre Wesson showed his two-plus seasons of college experience with 35.4 seconds remaining when he, too, didn’t give up on a loose ball. He hit the floor and called timeout before an opponent could get his hands on the ball for a tie-up.
A little more than one second later, Muhammad was fouled intentionally to stop the clock and made two free throws for a 68-58 lead.
“I was really proud of our guys’ effort for this one here today,’’ coach Chris Holtmann said. “I thought that we came in and played a really good team that’s really well coached in a tremendous environment.’’
Holtmann called it “probably as complete an effort as we’ve had.’’
Nebraska came in having lost 70-64 to Michigan State at home and 76-69 at Rutgers.
Coach Tim Miles was quoted as saying his players were “soft” and “casual,’’ and that was as direct a challenge to their masculinity.
The arena was rocking, but Ohio State made it quiet for long stretches.
“This is my first time coaching here, but I’ve heard so much about this environment here,’’ Holtmann said. “It’s a beautiful place, the fans are terrific and right on top of you. That was somewhat critical for us, trying to keep them as quiet as possible, and that’s hard with this environment. Give our guys a lot of credit.’’
Ohio State did catch an enormous break when Nebraska’s 6-foot-9 senior forward Isaac Copeland, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, went down with a left leg injury 45 seconds into the second half and did not return.
Copeland was called for traveling, but continued dribbling through the whistle and came down awkwardly on the leg trying to dunk.
Even with Copeland, the Cornhuskers ranked 304th nationally in rebounding and have a thin bench. They give up more than 14 offensive rebounds per game.
The Buckeyes dominated the backboards 45-31 and took down 14 offensive rebounds. They also had 14 second-chance points to two.
Holtmann didn’t think there was a great turnaround in attitude, just execution.
“I’ll be honest with you, this group has been pretty tied together,’’ he said. “Even through as hard a stretch anyone of us could have dreamed of – and I’m sure, listen, the tough times aren’t ending – they really stayed together. I think they felt a little bit of momentum in some things going our way. It was great to see some smiles on their faces.’’
The game began to swing when Jackson made a play. Muhammad missed a lay-up on the fast break, but Jackson kept pursuing the ball and had a put-back to make it 40-39 Ohio State with 14:51 left.
Yet another play came 23 seconds later when Kaleb Wesson drew a charge. Sixteen seconds later, Muhammad hit a lay-up off an inbound pass.
Plays that highlighted the losing streak cropped up when Kaleb Wesson was called for a three-second violation when he had backup center Tanner Borchardt beaten deep on the block.
Wesson compounded that mistake when he was called for a hook and hold foul, this one a flagrant one, on the next possession.
But Wesson sucked it up and hit a three-pointer and Muhammad followed with a three-pointer for a 50-41 lead with 10 minutes left.
Muhammad was this good:
1. He hit a trey with the shot clock winding down with 9:03 left for a 53-43 lead.
2. The 30-second clock buzzer was sounding when he hit a three to make it 59-49 with 4:43 left. Muhammad tracked down a loose ball, dribbled to 5 feet behind the arc and fired away.
3. Finally, he buried 7 of 8 free throws in the final 1:15.
What did we learn?
The Buckeyes will be heavy underdogs against a Michigan team that will want to smoke them right out of Crisler Arena, but their chances of getting a bid to the NCAA tournament are not dead.
ESPN bracket guru and trivia monster Howie Schwab has them an 11th seed in the South Regional.
There is schedule relief after the Wolverines with Rutgers, Penn State, Indiana and Illinois coming up. Only Indiana won’t be played at The Schott.
Holtmann is a pretty sharp man. He went to a zone defense in the second half, and that forced a Nebraska team that is not particularly great behind the three-point arc to play a game of chess in finding shots.
He also wisely took Kaleb Wesson off the floor earlier than usual and before he got fouls. That move had to keep Wesson’s stress level down because officials have been bearing down on his every move as if he were Public Enemy No. 1.
Muhammad won’t be voted Big Ten freshman of the year – Indiana’s Romeo Langford probably should prepare his acceptance speech before going to the NBA – but what a season he is having.
Yesterday, he was 7-for-12 from the floor and totaled six rebounds, three steals and two assists in sitting down for only five minutes.
We’ll see just how much the Buckeyes have grown when they walk into Crisler Arena.
Right now, though, a cannon ball might as well have been lifted off their shoulders.