Rapp Around: Hang Onto Those Shovels

By Jeff Rapp, February 10th, 2016

Clang.

“My God, they have no answers. Northwestern is in the lead and they have no answers.”

Thwap.

“And you might want to get out on the arc, Buckeyes. Geez. You know all Northwestern wants to do is shoot threes.

Clunk.

“Ugghh!”

Swish.

“The Wildcats get production off their bench and we get nothing. Kam Williams is shooting runners, can’t buy a basket. And Thad is just sitting there. This is pathetic.”

If you were among 11,376 spread out at the Schottenstein Center or watching Ohio State host Northwestern on the hardwood on Tuesday night, chances are you heard comments something like those above. Or blurted them out yourself. Or muttered them while on your couch.

The Buckeyes, in a must-win position, had not lost to the Wildcats at home since 1977 – you know, when Woody Hayes was still coaching and Jimmy Carter was in the White House – and yet it sure looked like that string was about to end. Then something resembling decent basketball showed up and allowed OSU to eke out a 71-63 victory.

The Buckeyes had a brief 9-6 lead, fell behind, and trailed 16-14 when point guard JaQuan Lyle split a pair of free throws with 8:15 left in the first half. They looked clueless in the next several possessions and found themselves trailing 24-14 after NU center Alex Olah tallied followed by three-balls by Aaron Falzon and Tre Demps.

The outlook wasn’t much better, 33-24, when OSU’s Jae’Sean Tate threw up a wild shot that banked in just before the halftime buzzer, cutting the deficit to seven.

If you think that softened Matta’s mood or he spent the break adjusting his ergonomic chair, think again. OSU’s winningest-ever basketball coach blew a gasket in the locker room, admitting he gave a verbal assault to just about every player individually.

He said he also had a very “one-side conversation” with Lyle at halftime in which he was the, ahem, dominant party.

So, no, Matta wasn’t just plotting an exit strategy when the Buckeyes were down 48-39 midway through the second half. It was anything but that.

And that is the point.

Fans can gripe. Reporters can critique. Even players can sulk a bit. But coaches coach. That’s all they know how to do. And that’s probably a very good thing.

No doubt Matta felt the same disgust as OSU followers when the Buckeyes lost shooters, took off-balance shots and lacked the proper patience to deal with the Wildcats’ pass-and-cut offense and deceptive defense.

He and his staff went over all the particulars but watched in horror as their young team failed to heed.

But the game is 40 minutes for a reason. And on a night when Dayton had to stage a massive rally at home against Duquesne, Xavier wasn’t itself at Creighton and North Carolina was in a dogfight at Boston College, the Buckeyes took their halftime reading of the riot act and turned it into something good.

Tate started the comeback with a lay-in in traffic and Daniel Giddens later drew a foul. His first free-throw attempt was ugly but somehow squirted off the back iron and backboard, bounced around on the rim and went in. The second one fell, too.

That, believe it or not, ignited the most unforeseen stretch of key free-throw shooting of the season – 16 in a row.

The Buckeyes also caused havoc with a 1-2-2 zone press and were able to get turnovers and transition buckets out of it. Marc Loving, of all people, turned into a playmaker during that fateful stretch and ended up recording five of OSU’s eight assists.

Williams, despite an 0-for-6 shooting night, was on the floor during much of the turnaround because he had played defense well enough to earn Matta’s trust.

And suddenly the Buckeyes were clutch – and balanced. Loving nailed a three to tie the score at 50. Keita Bates-Diop scored on a nifty scoop shot moments later to provide OSU’s first second-half lead, 52-50, with 5:58 left. Trevor Thompson hit a well-defended left-handed hook in the post to up the edge to 56-53. Lyle canned a three after the Wildcats (16-9, 4-8) tied the score. And after a defensive stop, Williams tickled in a pair of free throws.

It was easy and downright justified to belittle OSU’s performance for much of the game. But when the smoke cleared, the Buckeyes had just five turnovers, hit 19 of 23 free throws, held Northwestern to 38.9 percent from the field and had all five starters in double figures in points. They also figured out a way to win for the first time in 11 games in which they were outrebounded.

And the scoreboard showed the Buckeyes, favored by five or six points depending on the oddsmaker, won by eight. As far as poll voters or bubble watchers or anyone else on the outside looking in is concerned, they did what they had to do.

Was it pretty? Um, no. But games with Northwestern rarely are.

What’s more important is Ohio State, at 15-10 overall and 7-5 in the Big Ten, still has a chance to earn NCAA Tournament consideration and keep alive Matta’s unbroken string of 20-win seasons.

The next three games actually look fairly winnable: at Rutgers on Saturday (4 p.m. Eastern, Big Ten Network), home vs. Michigan on Feb. 16 (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), and at Nebraska on Feb. 20 (7 or 9 p.m. ET, BTN).

The closing trio of games is brutal – two with Michigan State and a meeting with first-place Iowa – but a win in one of those contests just might put OSU in contention for a dance card (although there would be more work to be done in the Big Ten Tournament).

That’s a lot of ifs. However, it’s now at least fathomable to think that the second-half surge against Northwestern may have just been the necessary fuel for OSU to save its season.

Plus, it’s a lot better outlook than “You stink!”