INDIANAPOLIS, IN. — With a Big Ten title up for grabs at the conclusion of the weekend, Ohio State loses its defensive toughness midway through the second half of its first game in the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament and falls 71-68 to Penn State.
It’s been characteristic of this team all season, but in a game where Ohio State desperately needed stops and a consistent defensive effort as Penn State came back chipping away at Ohio State’s lead, it just couldn’t find it.
Ohio State led by as many as 13 in the matchup and controlled the game through the first half. But the second half was a different story. Penn State had 47 second-half points.
“We’re just not where we need to be defensively,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said following the loss.
Penn State’s guards were untouched driving in the second half and getting in pick-and-roll situations. The Nittany Lions led offensively through their guard play to a much-improved second half, shooting 61.5 percent from the floor.
Penn State got everything it wanted, including 31 points from its bench. The second half was just all too familiar for Ohio State, whose defense simply fell apart and left open opportunities for Penn State to drive and make plays time after time.
Ohio State also lacked size without Kyle Young and Zed Key. Young had some of his best games of the year against Penn State in the regular season. Both of their absences were felt in this loss.
The Nittany Lions had 24 points in the paint and scored on 22 of 30 possessions in the second half. Once again, their guards were a major role in that.
Guards Sam Sessoms had 18 points for the Nittany Lions, Myles Dread had 12, and Jalen Pickett had 16.
Being in the ball screen, having the right spacing, and creating separation and playing on opposite planes are parts of their game that Penn State has emphasized all season. But it wasn’t just Penn State. Other teams this season have be able to ball screen Ohio State and create issues in the middle of the court for the Buckeyes.
For Holtmann, the bottom line is that they just need to improve defensively and better manage the defensive lapses.
“We’ve went on runs, teams have went on runs. It’s college basketball,” Holtmann said. “I don’t think there’s a consistent theme there at all, I think it’s just — I do think when your defense isn’t as strong as it needs to be, you know, that really eliminates runs because your offense is going to be a little bit fluid.”
The players know they have the ability to defend at a high level against top players. The challenge is being able to handle defending ball screens and talented opposing guards consistently well.
“Consistent effort on that end and being tougher,” Cedrick Russell said, “When we do that, it’s a different outcome. It’s just being able to be more consistent on that end. And we’ve showed it in games this year, so it’s not like we can’t do it.”
Now out of the conference tournament, the Buckeyes will wait until Sunday to determine where they stand in the NCAA Tournament. But before preparing for any opponent, the focus for Ohio State is to figure out its lapses of defensive struggles, starting with the toughness on that end that was lacking against Penn State and the other four out of Ohio State’s last five opponents.
“We need to play harder,”E.J. Liddell said. “If we don’t know that by now, something’s wrong, but we’ve got a week to get better.”