Early-season inconsistencies hung around into the early stages of the second half against Merrimack. Then a big dunk by Roddy Gayle got the Buckeyes moving toward a 24-point victory.
Columbus, OH – Chris Holtmann waited for the right moment. That moment sent Roddy Gayle high above the rim.
Ohio State led, but a four-point lead early in the second half against Merrimack College felt as uninspiring as the Schottenstein Center crowd was quiet and small.
“We needed a little bit of juice in the building,” Holtmann said.
And he knew just the play.
The Buckeyes’ baseline out-of-bounds habit on Wednesday night against the Warriors’ wide, active and sometimes confounding matchup zone had been no more than to safely get the ball in bounds. What Merrimack didn’t know was that those first few plays were decoys.
In a we-need-a-spark moment, Holtmann’s seldom-used play called for Gayle to watch for the guard to turn his back and cut down the lane. The guard obliged and Gayle’s sudden move set up an alley-oop pass from Bruce Thornton.
“Bruce threw an amazing ball,” Gayle said.
Gayle climbed high above the rim for the catch, dunked the basketball and the crowd roared as loud as it could. The play might have blown the roof off the Schott if a lot more than 7,929 people were occupying the 19,000-seat arena. Those who decided a Wednesday night out to see the Buckeyes play a school from Andover, Massachusetts, few have heard of, showed their appreciation.
“I put it in for this game because we felt like if we ran something four or five times we thought we could run a counter,” Holtmann said. “When the game’s as stagnant as it was, it’s part of the reason I called it to be honest with you. There was a moment there I didn’t think he was going to be able to get it. It was a high pass. It was impressive.”
Gayle’s rim-rattler accounted for the Buckeyes’ first points of the second half at the 16:35 mark. Further, it was only their second field goal in a span of 11 minutes, 44 seconds. Starting with Gayle’s dunk the Buckeyes scored 10 straight points to lead by 14 with 12:33 left.
In the final 10 minutes, the Buckeyes’ offense found its ultimate comfort zone against the Warriors’ zone that mostly resembled a 1-3-1. After the lead shrunk to six, the Buckeyes blew the game open for good with a 16-0 run and won by the margin they expected, 76-52.
“Good final run stretch there in the second half for our guys,” said Holtmann, whose team shot 54.8% in the second half. “They did a great job breaking free of that zone.”
The Buckeyes knew the zone was coming, but until they tried to attack it, they didn’t know quite how it would feel.
“With a zone like that you can prepare all you want,” forward Evan Mahaffey said. “But when you get in the game it’s different.”
Holtmann said the Warriors’ game plan sought to limit 3-point shots and force the Buckeyes to make open 15-foot jumpers. They also used their guards to drop at times and harass the ball from behind in the lane. But that type of offense is an unusual way to try to score because of the way most basketball games are played now.
The game they are used to playing relies more heavily on 3-point shooting and driving to the basket. The Warriors take teams out of that style. Last year with a more veteran team, they won the Northeast Conference tournament. But they didn’t get to play in the NCAA Tournament because they were in the fourth and final probationary year of moving from Division II to Division I. Instead, Fairleigh Dickinson went to the tournament and upset Purdue in the first round.
“What makes them most effective is they scramble really well,” Holtmann said. “It’s unique and it’s different than what you see with the Syracuse zone. It has some of the same principles in terms of how high and wide their wings are, but the Syracuse zone does not chase you off the (3-point) line like this group does.”
Gayle, who scored a game-high 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, opened the game with consecutive 3-pointers from the left wing. So the Warriors extended their zone even more.
Playing zone always results in tradeoffs. When the Warriors chose to run the Bucks off the 3-point line, that left the middle wide open. The Bucks went to work, getting the ball to Mahaffey, Gayle and Jamison Battle at the foul line and running the offense from there.
They worked some high-low plays and got Felix Okpara a dunk, made a couple short jumpers and pushed the lead 23-11 on freshman Devin Royal’s first college points when he took a turn in the middle. But the Warriors began to split the difference better between allowing open 3s and allowing the forwards to operate freely in the lane.
By halftime Ohio State’s lead was down to 35-29. The Bucks were getting good shots, but they made only 32.1%. At halftime the Bucks wished they had shot better, but they knew they were getting shots they wanted.
What the Buckeyes weren’t getting, and only got late in the game, was Bruce Thornton attacking the basket. The zone took that away. In addition, the Warriors weren’t concerned about offensive rebounding. They got back on defense quickly and didn’t allow the Buckeyes to score in transition, which also meant fewer scoring opportunities for Thornton, who took only six shots and scored eight points.
Solving the zone wasn’t the only difference. After the Warriors shot 46.2% in the first half, the Buckeyes held the Warriors to 33.3% shooting in the second half and forced 10 of their 19 turnovers.
“One big thing that we really emphasized going to locker room after the first half was our defense,” Mahaffey said. “Being able to really come out in the second half and really try to dominate that end was a big thing. And I feel like that’s what’s really going to carry us throughout this time is our defensive intensity.”
The Buckeyes also rebounded much better than they did in Friday’s loss to Texas A&M. The Warriors never sent all five players to the offensive glass in an effort to prevent points in transition, so they were not in A&M’s league on the boards. Still, the Buckeyes outrebounded the Warriors 42-25 and allowed only four offensive rebounds and zero second-chance points.
“It was box-out heavy,” Mahaffey said of the practices since Friday. “Just whatever you have to do to get the ball – no second-chance points. We knew they (coaches) were right all along, but it’s just making sure we’re doing it.”