The Buckeyes’ freshman from tiny Versailles, Ohio burst on the scene Tuesday to lead them over #22-ranked Ohio, and give hope yet for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.
Columbus – It was a little more than one minute into the second half when Justin Ahrens raised high and straight for a three-pointer, with the basketball leaving his left hand as if from some kind of mechanical launcher.
The ball circled about halfway around the hoop before spinning out. It was his fourth miss in five attempts, and most of the 14,118 people in The Schott moaned groaned.
Ahrens looked at the ceiling of the arena in dismay. It was the second near miss for him.
So many shooters, especially a freshman still finding his way in the college game, would have thought it just wasn’t his night and gotten into the fetal position.
Ahrens, though, has a marksman’s mentality that the next shot is going to go down and the cock-sure attitude of a 19-year-old who has had his way on the court most of his young life.
Two minutes later, he knocked in a three-pointer.
Then another went down. And then another, and another and yet another.
If his left hand had been a six-shooter, he would have been blowing smoke from the barrel.
Ahrens made 6 of 10 treys, had a driving lay-up off the fast break and was 9-for-9 from the free throw line in scoring 29 points as the front man in Ohio State’s 90-70 wipeout of 22nd-ranked Iowa on Tuesday.
The Buckeyes (18-10, 8-9) probably moved a giant step closer to snagging an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for a second straight season.
The gaping hole in the team’s resume had been a lack of a victory over a Big Ten heavyweight. The Hawkeyes (21-7, 10-7) are considered to be a lock for the tournament with a NCAA Evaluation Tool ranking of 30.
“I always have a lot of confidence,’’ Ahrens said. “This is something I’ve trained myself to do since I was little. My dad always told me that if you miss shots you’ve got to move on. You make a bad play, you can’t hang your head on it. You miss a shot, you can’t hang your head on it.’’
Then the gunslinger in him spoke up.
“When I got hot, it was going up,’’ he said.
Ahrens, who is from Versailles, pointed out that Iowa couldn’t have known that much about him.
“I haven’t played all year, so they probably didn’t have a scouting report,’’ he said.
The game hung in the balance early in the second half when Ahrens almost single-handedly blew it open by nailing a trey that made it 45-39 with 16:41 left and another 74 seconds later that made it 51-42.
At that point, one almost could see teammates relax and just start playing the game.
The shot that staggered Iowa came on an Ahrens three from the baseline that made it 71-54 with 9:21 left.
Ahrens had another trey lined up from the baseline, but was knocked off his feet for a foul. He swished three straight free throws for an 18-point lead with 8:42 left.
One beneficiary was 6-foot-10 sophomore center Kaleb Wesson. He went for 18 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals and one blocked shot.
“Man, he was just great,’’ Wesson said. “You see him putting up extra shots after every practice and it’s great to see that pay off. That makes for easy basketball. (Teammates are) hitting shots and that means I’m playing one-on-one basketball in the post.’’
For the record, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said his staff did indeed have a game plan ready for Ahrens.
“Oh, he has been playing well,’’ McCaffery said. “He played well against us the last time and against Maryland. He’s a shooter, but he was open.’’
The man in the street might ask Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann why he hadn’t given Ahrens this chance much earlier in the season.
The facts are that Ahrens often played not to get in the way of the veterans and not to make mistakes. He started to get his feet down the second half of the Northwestern game only a week ago.
“He’s a kid that has really grown as the season has gone along,’’ Holtmann said. “When you think about him a month ago at the Michigan game, he’s different. The thing I love about Justin as I’ve said before is that he’s a confident kid, but his focus is on the team playing well and finding a way to help the team win. He has lost himself in that and he has been rewarded.’’
A student reporter hinted that maybe Ahrens has elbowed his way into the starting lineup for keeps. This was his second straight start.
Holtmann had a little fun with the kid.
“Are you saying he’s a lock to start the rest of the season?’’ Holtmann said. “Is that what you are asking? I think he has just got to keep working. He has got to keep his focus on the right things and he has got to keep getting better. Listen, it’s not realistic to expect a freshman to go out and make 60 percent of his threes in every game, so let’s pump the brakes on that.’’
Then a veteran reporter stopped Holtmann in his tracks.
Has he ever seen a freshman play so sparingly the first 27 games before exploding like this?
“Uh, um, I’d have to think about that,’’ Holtmann said, an index finger digging into the side of his head. “What I’ve seen in the past is freshmen emerge late in the season, I haven’t seen a 29-point explosion. I’ve certainly seen freshmen emerge as key players in the last month and a half of the season because they understand the game better, their shot selection gets better. That I have seen.’’
This game was a whole lot more than Ahrens for the Buckeyes. After Ahrens and Kaleb Wesson, four others scored in double figures, Keyshawn Woods with 13, Andre Wesson with 11 and Duane Washington with 10.
Senior C.J. Jackson, who returned after sitting out the Maryland game with a sore left shoulder, was a rock with five rebounds, six assists, two steals and one turnover in 34 minutes. His defense was superb.
Here are some team numbers that are so good that they look fictitious: 28-for-58 shooting for 48.3 percent, 12 of 32 three-pointers made for 37.5 percent, a 36-26 rebounding advantage, seven steals and 19 assists.
Despite all that goodness, the Hawkeyes were crawling up the Buckeyes’ backs after two free throws by Jordan Bohannon whittled the lead to 78-67 with 5:28 remaining.
Then Ahrens made one of his few mistakes by attempting to zip the ball from the baseline to Woods at the point.
Isaiah Moss intercepted, drove down court and cocked his right arm to begin a tomahawk dunk. It had turning point written all over it.
But Andre Wesson timed his leap perfectly and stuffed the shot attempt.
“That was crazy,’’ Ahrens said. “I was at half court and saw it. He just pinned it on the glass right near the square. That was a critical play in the game for us. They could have gotten momentum off that steal.’’
Holtmann called the play a major checkpoint.
“Andre’s block was a huge momentum play,’’ he said. “I realized it was getting tighter there. He has a real knack for that in timing situations. His length helps him play bigger. I’ve seen it in practice a number of times. The biggest thing is we got that ball back. We scrambled and got the ball back.’’
Seventeen seconds later, McCaffery was hit with a technical foul for arguing when his son, Connor McCaffery, was whistled for fouling Woods. Ahrens and Woods each made both free throws for an 80-67 lead.
The feeling is that Ohio State should get into the NCAA tournament if it doesn’t perform a pratfall by losing its final three regular season games.
Next up is Purdue at loud and often intimidating Mackey Arena in West Lafayette on Saturday. Then it’s a game at Northwestern next Wednesday, followed by a game against Wisconsin at home on Saturday.
“It’s a big thing,’’ Kaleb Wesson said of the Iowa win. “Going into the (Big Ten) tournament you want big wins like this and to beat a ranked opponent.’’
Ahrens said the players and coaches don’t talk about the post-season much, but that everyone knows what the score is.
“We’re just focused on punching our ticket for the tournament,’’ he said. “We really don’t talk about it much, but in the locker room we all know how bad we want to be there. If you don’t make the tournament, it’s kind of a bummer. It’s not what you want to experience in college basketball.’’
Ohio State’s inconsistencies and shortcomings have worn down Holtmann at times. During interviews on Monday, he looked like a man who needed a fishing trip, or at least a long drive to the country to clear his head.
Now, his team that was picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten is close to doing something special.
“Obviously, we understand there are three games left to be played and they will be extremely difficult,’’ Holtmann said. “We’re just trying to keep our focus on the task at hand and the day at hand. If we continue to get better, hopefully our body of work will speak for itself. This was a home win against a very good team that has had a very good season.’’
Pressed for more, he said, “You love seeing your guys playing with that level of joy and happiness.’’
In any other season, Ohio State might be categorized as having “work to do” by bracket experts with regard to getting on the bubble.
Before last night, its lone quality victory over a team that is all but guaranteed of getting an at-large berth was against Cincinnati, which is 25th in the latest NCAA Evaluation Tool rankings. The other important wins came against No. 54 Creighton and No. 59 Minnesota.
This, though, has been one crappy season for depth from power conference teams in Division I, and the evidence starts with the Pac-12 and The American possibly getting two bids and the Atlantic 10 one.
How fractured has this season been?
Buffalo from the one-bid Mid-American Conference is at 16th in the NET, Wofford from the Southern Conference is 20th and Lipscomb from the American Sun is 47th.