While it might not have been an absolute must-win game for the Ohio State Buckeyes (18-10, 8-9), knocking off the No. 22 Iowa Hawkeyes (21-7, 10-7) 90-70 at Value City Arena on Tuesday night will absolutely go a long way to getting OSU off of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
In snazzy gray throwback jerseys, the Buckeyes made a major statement in their effort to make it back to the Big Dance for the second-straight season under Chris Holtmann. The victory is the first for Ohio State over a ranked team, and the first against a Big Ten foe higher than them in the standings.
Coming into the game, likely few would have guessed that the hero for the Buckeyes would be freshman forward Justin Ahrens. After having his career-high of nine points on Saturday against Maryland, the two-time Mr. Ohio Basketball put that high in the rearview mirror, finishing the night with 29.
After missing OSU’s game against Maryland over the weekend, C.J. Jackson was again out of the starting lineup, but when the visiting Hawks raced out to a 7-0 lead, the senior guard entered the game after Kaleb Wesson got the Buckeyes’ first basket. Despite missing on their first six shots from behind the arc, OSU used three offensive rebounds in the first seven minutes to take an early 9-7 lead.
After the initial rush by Iowa, the Buckeyes appeared to be in control on both sides of the court. The offensive flow led to a number of open looks — including two from Ahrens — even though they didn’t go down. Despite the cold shooting from distance, the Buckeye defense and rebounding efforts kept the game close.
The first Buckeye triple of the game came from Duane Washington Jr. with 11:14 remaining in the first half, putting OSU on top 14-11. That bucket was followed on the next possession by a bail-out, shot-clock-beating bomb from Andre Wesson.
Washington continued to put his stamp on the first half with a reverse layup and a steal on back-to-back possessions. With the Buckeyes up 19-13, however, Kaleb Wesson was whistled for his second suspect offensive foul, much to Holtmann’s dismay. After expressing his displeasure, the game officials warned the Buckeye head coach to settle down.
Holtmann took the warning to heart… for a minute or two. But, during the under-8 media timeout, he got back into it with the refs, and was assessed a technical foul; Jordan Bohannon hit both free throws to cut the Buckeye lead to 22-20. The junior guard would add only a single field goal in the first half.
After the free throws tied the game, Iowa came out in a 3/4-court press, which slowed OSU down momentarily, before Jackson found Washington for a nearly-uncontested layup.
Despite the bucket, it felt like the game’s momentum had shifted from being squarely in Ohio State’s corner across the court to the visitors.
With the younger Wesson brother on the bench, the home team went cold, and Iowa mounted a six-point lead (31-25) with 3:44 remaining, thanks to a 13-3 run following Holtmann’s technical foul.
Other than a single free throw from Kyle Young, all of OSU’s points at that point had come from Washington (10), Keyshawn Woods (4), and five apiece for the Wesson brothers; after a stretch on the bench, both Washington and Kaleb Wesson re-entered the game following the under-4 timeout. That is when momentum swung again.
The younger Wesson hit a pair of free throws, and then on the next possession, Ahrens stole the ball at the top of the key and rumbled down the floor where he was fouled by Iowa’s Nicholas Baer. Not only did Ahrens make the basket, but Baer was called for a flagrant foul in an attempt to prevent the layup. Ahrens converted on both attempts from the charity stripe, and OSU got the ball again—although they couldn’t improve on the 6-0 run that tied the game at 31.
The last minute and change before halftime was fast and furious, and included a three-pointer from Jackson, and block on a last-second, fast-break layup attempt on the guard as well.
At the half, Ohio State led 36-33 thanks to a 21-15 rebounding advantage, and the fact that the Hawkeyes had only attempted three free throws (making two), despite leading the Big Ten in practically every conceivable stat from the line. Another important factor in OSU’s strong first half performance is the fact that they only turned the ball over six times in the first 20 minutes. They coughed it up 21 times in their January loss to Iowa.
The Hawkeyes returned to the press in the second half, but it appeared that OSU was ready. The Buckeyes continually passed over the press to get open looks, including a monstrous dunk from Kaleb Wesson.
The offensive flow seemed to benefit the Buckeyes, even as the shot-clock wound down. After missing his first four attempts from downtown, Ahrens connected on his next two from behind the arc (and he wouldn’t miss from distance the rest of the game). The freshman’s triples bookended a three-pointer for Jackson as the Buckeyes took a 51-42 advantage with 15:27 remaining in regulation.
Ahrens’ second three-pointer put him in double-digits for the first time in his collegiate career. However, the barrage from distance was not done, as Andre Wesson got into the act to put the home team up by a dozen, 56-44.
With the Buckeyes getting out to their largest lead of the game, Wieskamp hit a pair of three-pointers to cut the lead to 59-52. But, Kaleb Wesson converted on two-straight old-fashioned three-point plays, to push it back to double-digits.
After the under-8 timeout, Wesson got another hoop-and-harm three-point play, but this time it was Andre. That was followed by another Ahrens three-ball, giving the Buckeyes their largest lead of the game at 68-54. Almost comically though, the three-point possessions weren’t done for the Buckeyes, as Ahrens was fouled in the act of shooting behind the arc, and nailed all three freebies.
With the Buckeye lead up to as many as 18, Iowa ratcheted up the defensive pressure, forcing the Buckeyes into some awkward possessions, and the Hawkeyes cut the lead to 11 with 4:30 remaining.
After an Ahrens turnover, Iowa guard Isaiah Moss raced out for a fast-break layup, but Andre Wesson tracked him down from behind for a huge block.
On the ensuing Ohio State possession, freshman guard Connor McCaffery (the son of head coach Fran) picked up a foul on Woods. While the teams were lining up for the bonus free throws, McCafferey continued to argue with the refs and was whistled for a technical. Ahrens converted those free throws, then Woods hit his pair to give OSU a four-point possession, and an 82-67 lead.
As if the game wasn’t crazy all ready, after Baer got a put-back bucket, the elder McCaffery drew the ire of the officials, and was assessed a technical of his own; Ahrens — of course — hit both of the subsequent freebies, giving him 26 points.
Lost in the excitement around Ahrens’ break-out performance is the fact that Kaleb Wesson had his fourth career double-double, ending with 18 points and 11 rebounds. In addition to Ahrens and the younger Wesson, Woods (13), Andre Wesson (11), and Washington Jr. (10, all in the first half) were all in double-digits on the night.
The Buckeyes will next be on the floor against the No. 14 Purdue Boilermakers this Saturday, March 2 at 2 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast live and in living color on ESPN from West Lafayette, Ind.