The Ohio State men’s basketball team took just over 40 minutes to find a sliver of rhythm against the Akron Zips in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament.
After a back-and-forth physical battle riddled with sloppy play and field-goal percentages hovering around a meager 30, the five minutes allotted in overtime was the narrow time window the Buckeyes needed to advance in postseason play.
OSU held the Zips to just one point in the extra period, while redshirt sophomore guard Kam Williams led the offensive charge over the course of the second half and overtime. The Buckeyes’ focus during the extra period pushed the team into the second round of the NIT with a 72-63 victory at the Schottenstein Center.
“They were very competitive, and it was a game down to the wire where I felt like we showed a little bit of growth,” said OSU junior forward Marc Loving. “I felt like at times this season we might’ve lost that game.”
Loving, who recorded the sixth double-double of his career, was one of three Buckeyes who finished with 18 points on the night. Williams added 18 points as well as five rebounds, while freshman guard JaQuan Lyle also registered a double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
“We felt like there was a lot of room for us to play our style of basketball,” Lyle said. “We really didn’t have much pace on offense, and we really weren’t disrupting them on the defensive side as much as we wanted to.”
Lyle’s comments were primarily true to the first half of the game. The team’s six lowest-scoring halves this season all occurred during the first 20 minutes of gameplay, with one of those periods taking place against Akron on Tuesday.
While OSU struggled early on to close out possessions down low and outside, the Buckeye bigs constantly challenged the boards to keep Akron within striking distance, totaling 57 rebounds. The problem was with following through and finishing.
The two teams combined to begin the game shooting 2-of-14 from the field, but the Buckeyes eventually pushed through the lethargic start to find their momentum later on in the contest.
“We were a little bit shaky at the beginning, and I thought we did a pretty decent job of playing through that,” said OSU coach Thad Matta.
However, despite collecting 18 offensive boards as a team, the Buckeyes only managed to muster up 12 second-chance points, two fewer than the Zips. In a postseason game in which neither team led by more than single digits, missing multiple scoring opportunities during a single possession usually spells out defeat.
Heading into halftime with a 29-25 deficit, there was very little room for error on either side.
OSU struggled to break the 20-point threshold throughout the course of the first half, but some minor halftime adjustments led to the Buckeyes outscoring Akron by 13 points over the final 25 minutes of the contest.
“I thought they did a great job of closing the game out,” Matta said.
With just over two minutes left in the second half, Lyle came up with arguably the game’s most important two-way play. After a 3-pointer by Akron senior forward Reggie McAdams put the Zips up by two points with just under three minutes left in regulation, Lyle stole the ball from senior guard Jake Kretzer and took it down to the other end to tie the game.
“To have something like that disappear from your lineup that fast, the next man has to step up, and we all had to contribute in a different way,” Loving said.
Despite falling short to the Buckeyes, Akron’s night consisted of a trifecta of effective players. The sharpshooting abilities of McAdams and Kretzer helped to combine for seven converted threes.
Although the Zips shot just over 21 percent from beyond the arc, Akron junior center Isaiah Johnson added a more physical presence to the team’s contrasting perimeter play. Johnson tallied 16 points and 12 rebounds on the night, but that was not enough to offset the team’s uncharacteristic struggles from beyond the arc.
“If you would’ve told me we would shoot 9-of-42 from three with the shots we got, I would tell you I’d be surprised,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot. “That probably was a determining factor.”
Even though OSU was sluggish at times, too, Akron’s inability to garner extended momentum might have been trifled by the team’s recent schedule. The Zips competed in their fourth contest in six days Tuesday, but Dambrot was not going to let possible fatigue excuse the team of a loss.
Dambrot said after the game he still believes his team had the talent and discipline necessary to knock off a major school like OSU.
“I felt like we should’ve won the game,” Dambrot said. “If we play up to our capabilities and they play up to their capabilities, I have enough respect for my team to think we should’ve won the game.”
Williams, Matta’s usual sixth man, stepped in as a starter in aid of sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop, who was held out of Tuesday’s contest with an undisclosed illness. Even though Williams was starting his first collegiate game against the Zips, he did not succumb to the pressure.
The Buckeyes are next set to host the Florida Gators on Sunday in the second round of the NIT. Tipoff is slated for noon at the Schottenstein Center.