Stemming the tide from eight losses in nine games, Ohio State survived two overtimes thanks to Bruce Thornton’s repeated heroics to preserve hopes it can salvage something from a season gone sour.
Head coach Chris Holtmann’s longevity still hangs in the balance and worries remain over what could wind up a second straight losing season.
Safe to say, though, that without Bruce Thornton’s heroics and a healthy dose of Maryland dry mouth down the stretch, the only debate about either Holtmann’s future or the Buckeyes’ finishing under .500 would be more when-related than if-related.
Now 14-10 overall and 4-9 in the Big Ten, a loss to the Terrapins would have made finishing above .500 a near impossibility for Ohio State, considering three of its next four games are on the road – where it sports a 15-game losing streak – and the other is against No. 2 Purdue.
After that, OSU finishes with home games against Nebraska and Michigan, both of whom have defeated the Buckeyes already.
Then comes the Big Ten Tournament, where anything better than a 1-1 record would require the type of unlikely run Ohio State fashioned last year, winning three times to get to the finals.
If you’re doing the math, it’s hard to find much certainty of OSU finishing on the plus-side of the won-loss ledger.
That matters a lot, because if the Buckeyes squeeze into the NIT, perhaps they can win a few more games and plausibly position this season as something other than an epic failure requiring Holtmann’s dismissal.
Outgoing OSU athletic director Gene Smith would love nothing more than to punt that decision to incoming AD, Ross Bjork, who won’t arrive until July 1, which is far too late to make a basketball head coaching change for next season.
Likewise, Ohio State would much prefer sending Smith off with the depiction of his career in Columbus as entirely rainbows and balloons
Handing Holtmann a $15 million buyout to go away – because Smith gave him a surprise contract extension with four years yet to run – would put something in the punch bowl at Smith’s going-away party that no one would believe is an unwrapped chocolate bar.
Holtmann wasn’t looking for punch, unless spiked with something stiff, after Thornton averted defeat with a tying triple late in regulation to force overtime, drove the lane near the one-minute mark and scored again to force the second extra period, then won it with another bold drive and conversion at the rim at 1:12 of the second OT.
“I’m going to enjoy this,” Holtmann said. “I’m going to enjoy a drink for sure”
In fairness, he should hoist a toast to a few Maryland players who played major roles in OSU winning for just the second time in 10 games, most notably junior center Julian Reese.
The third-worst free throw shooter in the Big Ten at 57%, Reese made five of his first seven free throws until 38 seconds remained in the first overtime with the score tied.
He whiffed on both, then after OSU couldn’t score to win it and the second overtime commenced, Reese yakked two more free throws at 3:16 to keep the score tied again.
Toss in his 4-of-15 shooting from within arm’s length of the basket and a team-high four turnovers and Reese made a strong case for being OSU’s player-of-the-game.
Except, of course, he plays for Maryland (13-11, 5-8).
Reese had company in gift-wrapping the win for Ohio State, with teammates Jahmir Young and Donta Scott also growing thick in the throat at inopportune times for the Terps.
Scott scored 19, thanks in part to going 7-of-8 at the line until he stepped to the stripe amid a 61-61 deadlock with 47 seconds left in regulation. An 81% free throw shooter on the season, he then missed both.
Thornton’s runner in the lane shortly thereafter also didn’t fall, forcing the first overtime.
Young, who scored 26, belied his 92% free throw accuracy by missing the second of two shots with 1:21 left in that extra period. The miss kept Maryland’s lead at 71-69, which Thornton erased with his power move down the lane to force another OT.
A similar drive and score pushed the Buckeyes in front by two with 1:12 left, after which Scott threw away a possession at the other end and then missed at the rim in the closing seconds.
The long rebound came off to Roddy Gayle for a breakaway dunk that clinched the victory, giving OSU a much-needed respite from its recent dry spell.
Thank Thornton – he of the 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists – for making that possible.
“I’m proud of the kid,” Holtmann said. “We told him, going into this game, ‘We’re going to roll with you, because we trust your decision-making.’ “
That’s a refreshing change, considering in OSU’s two previous losses, both decided on essentially its final possession, Holtmann put the ball in other players’ hands instead of his point guard’s and both occasions resulted in game-deciding turnovers.
“I feel like we’ve been working hard in practice,” Holtmann said. “I feel like we’ve been getting better. They needed to feel the reward of a win. They needed that validation. Hopefully, it’s something we can build on.”