The basketball kept finding the big guys inside and they kept scoring as Ohio State avenged an earlier loss at Penn State with a fast start and strong enough finish.
Columbus, OH – Ohio State basketball needed four outcomes Saturday: victory, confidence, offensive diversity, and to feel good.
Who knew Evan Mahaffey, in need of an emotional lift more than anyone on the team because of family concerns, would be the catalyst for all four in a must-win game against Penn State, a team they lost to in December after surrendering an 18-point lead.
Mahaffey has started every game this season, and many have wondered why. “People have been saying stuff about him, that he wasn’t scoring,” Buckeyes senior Zed Key said. “But he’s been improving.”
Mahaffey’s role, while averaging 3.9 points, has been to rebound, pass and defend, all skills he excels at. On Saturday he showed more for the first time. Against the team he played for last year, Mahaffey scored a career-high 16 points, grabbed five rebounds, made two steals, blocked two shots and played a season-high 31 minutes and 41 seconds.
And the Buckeyes ended a three-game losing streak with a 79-67 victory after sprinting to a 16-0 lead. Mahaffey scored six of those early points just hanging around the rim, and as Penn State coach Mike Rhoades said, “When you give your opponent some easy ones, guys get confident when they see that ball go in.”
Holtmann pulled Mahaffey aside and spoke to him on the court right after the game ended.
“Kids question themselves a little bit confidence wise, and I was really proud of the fact that he fought through that,” Holtmann said. “You’re starting to see how he can impact things. I just think he’s growing into a young man who can really help us on both ends.”
But, as important as 16 points and victory were to Mahaffey, he has life and death on his mind.
Mahaffey’s father, Jamie Mahaffey, suffers from advanced heart failure and is awaiting a heart transplant. A Go Fund Me page was recently started by former NBA player, coach and Middletown High School alum Butch Carter, who is the older brother of Ohio State football great Cris Carter. The page has already raised almost $50,000 toward the $150,000 goal.
“I’ve been playing with this since the season started,” Mahaffey said. “I’m not used to it, but it’s a little bit easier because I’ve been doing it for a while and now everybody knows. But it’s still hard because in the back of my mind … any second. I’m blessed enough to get to play another day.”
Mahaffey, from Cincinnati Moeller, has been around basketball all his life, tagging along when his dad coached at Cincinnati North College Hill.
“I was constantly with him,” Mahaffey said. “For him not to be here as much, it definitely hurts. But I know he’s watching from where he is. It just gives me extra motivation, for sure, just to play a little bit harder because God can take anyone off this earth at any given time. These types of situations really show you it’s true.”
Rhoades is in his first year at Penn State and talked like a coach who wishes Mahaffey hadn’t portaled his way to Columbus.
“He’s a basketball player,” Rhoades said. “He’s not a great shooter, but he can dribble and pass, and he has a great feel. And he has a nose for the ball. He does so much for them. When he scores like that, that’s a huge advantage for them.”
Mahaffey’s big game also signaled a needed change in the Buckeyes’ offensive attack, which has relied heavily on the guard scoring of Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle Jr. and Jamison Battle. They made an obvious effort to get the basketball inside to the big men and scored 40 points in the paint.
“There was a big emphasis,” Mahaffey said. “We have so many great shooters on this team, so to get them easier shots, we want to get into the paint of then look out. That just makes it easier for them to get threes.”
However, the Buckeyes made only 3 of 18 from three-point range and missed all eight tries in the first half while building a 33-19 lead. Instead, the big guys ate. In addition to Mahaffey’s 16, Felix Okpara scored 14 points, Key scored 10 and freshman Devin Royal scored six in a five-minute stint in the second half.
“You could tell they were wanting to get to the rim on us,” Rhoades said. “They just drove us and big-boyed us. They got us down deep and went through us, over us, around us.”
Okpara, like Mahaffey, starts because of his defense, rebounding and shot-blocking and shot-altering abilities. He entered the game averaging 6.6 points. He makes almost 65% of his shots, all of them near the rim, but he’s not been a focal point. But the need is there with the attention defenses pay to the guards.
“Him getting behind the defense was really critical and his ability to catch and read, play off two feet and then also make some pretty good decisions,” Holtmann said.
Holtmann cited a play when Okpara received a bounce pass from Dale Bonner and didn’t rush the kind of shot he usually misses. Instead, Okpara stayed under control and fed Mahaffey for an assist.
Gayle, in another positive development, made 6 of 13 shots and scored 16 points. Battle, able to attempt only two 3-pointers, scored 11. Thornton, who averages 16 points, made just one of nine shots and scored three points. But he committed only one turnover (the Buckeyes had only six against one of the best teams in the country at creating turnovers) and had six assists.
The Buckeyes clearly had their three-game losing streak and the loss at Penn State on their minds. The broke to a 16-0 lead, kept the lead in double digits and led by as many as 23 entering the final eight minutes of the game.
“They were sort of wounded after the last three games, and they played with great urgency today,” Rhoades said. “Winning on the road is tough enough I’m learning in the Big 10. If you’re not ready to play, you’re going to be taken advantage of and that’s what happened today.”
Still, the Buckeyes’ fault of not putting teams away in the final minutes showed up. Penn State got hot and sliced the OSU lead to nine twice inside of two minutes. Holtmann said on offense the problem was not attacking enough to get to the free-throw line. And on defense he called it a lack of maturity.
“We relaxed too much,” he said. “I don’t think we played with as much physicality and aggressiveness offensively or defensively. The clock’s your friend in those situations, so I get the offensive thing a little bit because you are trying to bleed the clock a little bit. But our lack of fight defensively, it’s a maturity thing. We just relax too much. We have to get better with it.”
The Buckeyes must show maturity this week with games at Nebraska (14-5, 4-4) on Tuesday and Northwestern (13-5, 4-3) on Saturday. And they will need the kind of offensive contributions they got from the bigs on Saturday.
“You need everybody on the team, especially in this league and the tournament,” Mahaffey said. “You need everybody you can get.”
And the Buckeyes, to be a tournament team, need every win they can get in January.