Ohio State’s young team gets in position to defend their home court against No. 15 Wisconsin, then it all falls apart in a critical final five minutes for an 11-point loss.
Columbus, OH – Max Klesmit did for Wisconsin on Wednesday night what Ohio State needed Bruce Thornton or Jamison Battle or Roddy Gayle Jr. to do.
Take over the game and finish.
Klesmit, a 6-foot-4 junior from Neenah, Wisconsin, played the unlikely hero in the Badgers’ 71-60 victory in front of 11,276 rarely rowdy fans at the Schottenstein Center.
Klesmit took two shots in the first half and missed them both. He took seven in the second half, made five, made all six of his free throws and scored 10 straight points in the middle of No. 15 Wisconsin’s closing 19-4 run. Klesmit averages 7 points and scored 18.
And therein lies the difference between teams like Wisconsin – at 4-0 the only unbeaten in Big Ten Conference play – and Ohio State, a team that has wilted down the stretch in its three conference losses and had to hold off comebacks in its two conference victories.
“I don’t get consumed with having to get one guy going,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “That’s the mark of a really, really good team.”
Ohio State is not the team that gets unexpected scoring contributions, and that’s keeping them from being a really, really good team. It’s either the Big 3 of Thornton, Battle and Gayle or nobody. That deficiency is on display at no time more than in the final minutes of games when defenses tighten up.
Right now Buckeyes’ coach Chris Holtmann, who speaks positively about the future of his young team, is like a baseball manager without a dependable closer or enough hitters in the lineup. It’s the middle of the order or nothing. The extra help – if it comes – won’t likely come from one player, but a combination of freshman Scotty Middleton, backup point guard Dale Bonner and bigs Felix Okpara and Zed Key.
“It may not be one particular guy – it just may be a little bit more from a number of guys,” Holtmann said. “That’s going to be important for us as we continue to get into the guts of Big Ten play.”
The Buckeyes (12-4, 2-3) rallied in the middle of the second half to a 50-48 lead with an 8-0 run on the backs of the other guys. After Battle made a short baseline jumper, Okpara scored on a putback and added a free throw.
Then Okpara blocked his third shot on the other end. And Middleton finished the run with a 3-pointer. The Schott was loud, the Buckeyes were feeling good, and then it all went sideways.
In the space of three minutes, Klesmit went for 3, straight-line drove for two, hit another 3 and stuck a foul-line jumper over Battle. Klesmit was clutch, but the Buckeyes also allowed another straight-line drive for two and didn’t execute on ball-screen situations that allowed for open shots.
On the other end, the Buckeyes missed free throws, including two front ends of 1-and-1s by Thornton, and some wide-open shots.
“We have to be better and tougher in those moments,” Holtmann said. “And then sometimes we’ve got to trust the pass a little bit more than what we’ve done, but at the same time we really got a couple of looks that we were exactly wanting.”
One of them was a hesitant, way off-target 3 by Gayle and another was an airballed jumper in the lane by Thornton. Those are the guys Holtmann wants shooting in those situations. Battle was too busy trying shake Klesmit’s glue-like defense.
The second-half scoring confirmed the trend that is costing the Buckeyes in Big Ten losses. Battle scored 14 points in the first half on 4-of-5 3-point shooting. Thornton made half of his shots and scored 11. Gayle continued his struggles with two points. But after combining for 27 points, the trio managed just 13 points in the second half. While they scored two-thirds of the team’s points – normally a good sign – they only scored 48.1% of the second-half points when the game was lost.
Ohio State’s backcourt is the kind of trio that carries teams on deep NCAA Tournament runs. They entered Wednesday’s game having scored 59.4% of the points in all games and 67.9% in four Big Ten games and the recent overtime win against West Virginia. What the early Big Ten season has shown is that at least two of three must be scoring to have a chance to win. When it’s only one, forget it. In the second half against Wisconsin, none of the three gave the Buckeyes the offense they needed.
The Big 3 are the Buckeyes’ top three scorers, averaging between 16 and 14 points a game, and they are the top three volume shooters by far. It’s only logical if the guys taking 56.7% of the shots, including 68.9% of the 3-point shots, aren’t hitting, then the Buckeyes are more than likely to lose as they did Wednesday.
In five Big Ten games and the recent West Virginia game the production from the Big 3 has been the difference between winning and losing. Key is the only other Buckeye to score in double figures in those games. But his 12 against Penn State and 11 against Indiana, weren’t enough to pick up the Big 3’s slack.
The Buckeyes defeated Minnesota when Thornton scored 26, Battle scored 25 and Gayle scored 16 for 71.4% of the points. Then they lost to Penn State when the three struggled and scored only 51.3% of the points.
In a 78-75 overtime win over West Virginia, Gayle got hot, scored 32 points, and Battle made 5 of 11 3-pointers for 17 points. It didn’t matter that Thornton had an off night with 11 because the three scored 76.9% of the points.
Gayle had an off night against Rutgers, but Thornton scored 24, Battle scored 22 and the three scored 75% of the points. Gayle had another off game at Indiana, as did Thornton, and the Buckeyes lost because the three scored only 53.8% of the points.
Battle, who played the previous two seasons for Minnesota, is the most experienced player on the Big Ten’s youngest team, and he’s not giving up on the team or expecting anything like the long losing streak that ruined last season.
“We’re still learning, we’re still growing, there’s still a lot of young pieces on his team,” he said. “There’s older guys on this team who have experience, and I think that’s on me to show that experience.
“Regardless if I haven’t won a lot of Big Ten games, I still feel like I’ve been in a lot of meaningful ones and played in a lot of Big Ten games. So, for me, I’ll take the responsibility in that aspect where I’m going to be a leader in that regard.”
The Buckeyes have a chance next week to fix things. They travel to reeling Michigan (6-9, 1-3) Monday and return home a week from Saturday to face Penn State (8-8, 2-3).
Fixing things for the Buckeyes means getting Gayle going again, finding a little more reliable scoring to take a little pressure of the Big 3, and being tougher on defense at crunch time.
If not, more Max Klesmits are coming for them.