An emotional Jae’Sean Tate made his entrance at the Schottenstein Center with his parents, brothers and sister as the last of the group of seniors to receive flowers from head coach Chris Holtmann and a framed jersey Tuesday.
Fighting back tears, the senior forward stood at half court with the jersey raised above his head, rotating to recognize the crowd of 15,620 that has grasped the Buckeyes’ surprise season along with Tate’s unwavering effort through his four seasons. Surrounded by his fellow seniors — guards Andrew Dakich and Kam Williams — and next to his classmate, redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop, Tate prepared to play in his 72nd and final game as a Buckeye in Columbus.
Nearly two hours later, Tate and the same teammates celebrated a dominating 79-52 win against Rutgers in a postgame encore recognition. The win snapped a two-game losing streak in which the Buckeyes were overwhelmed against both Penn State and Michigan.
“That was part of the perfect storm,” Bates-Diop said. “Part of just because we came off a couple losses, but then it being Senior Night, we obviously wanted to get the win against a good Rutgers team and kind of send everybody off.”
Ohio State’s Senior Night began by recognizing the players before those same players all joined together as starters on the court, the first time that group opened the game together. Tate, Bates-Diop, Williams and Dakich helped push Ohio State out to an early 13-6 lead before the first substitutions were made.
Dakich, a former walk-on at Michigan who came to Ohio State as a graduate transfer, had never started a game in his four-year career until he was given that start Tuesday. And while he was grateful for the chance to start in front of his parents, he was more focused on how his group played.
“I appreciate coach Holtmann giving me the opportunity to start in front of my family like that,” Dakich said. “But it wasn’t about really the start. It was about how we came out in those first few minutes and set the tone and obviously C.J. [Jackson] has set the tone and for him to accept [me starting in his place].”
Starting all the seniors in the same lineup is not something Holtmann has always done. He said he would not have started that five in a normal situation, but a conversation with an older coach convinced him the final game at home is a special moment for seniors.
“I almost didn’t do it until I had a former player that was on my coaching staff my senior year,” Holtmann said. “But he kind of said, ‘Hey coach, this is kind of a big deal to players.’ I started doing it my first year.”
The game itself had some ups and downs. Ohio State watched its lead shrink to just five points going into halftime before it gained some separation from the Scarlet Knights. The Buckeyes pushed its lead out with a 22-4 run to open the second half and never looked back to ensure Rutgers would not upset the Senior Day festivities.
“I’ve lost on Senior Day and had to go through that — not had to go through it, it’s my decision, I like doing that,” Holtmann said. “But it’s not fun when you lose.”
But they didn’t lose. The class honored before the game, just as it had done all year, helped lead the Buckeyes to a win.
During the post-game ceremonies, Holtmann focused on how much the senior class has impacted the team in his only year he has with them. The leadership exhibited by the group made this season’s senior class worthy of the large recognition, he said.
At the beginning of the season, Holtmann talked about how Tate and Bates-Diop would be counted on to be the team’s leaders. By the end of the year, it seemed that had been exactly the case. Bates-Diop is the team’s most productive player, and Tate seems to be the clubhouse leader.
Williams, Bates-Diop and Tate have all been through a lot at Ohio State. They were with the Buckeyes as they struggled to even reach the NIT, and they are now with the team when it looks to make its final push into the NCAA Tournament. And while this is not the last time any of them will suit up in scarlet and gray, it will mark the final time the trio do so in Columbus.
“I ain’t going to cry,” Tate, a Pickerington Central High School product, said during his post-game speech, turning to his teammates. “But I mean, we’re family. Like you guys pick me up. Almost every day I get in touch with one of y’all. We just have a supporting cast where y’all care about me and y’all think about me and it’s great man. I ain’t going to cry.”
But he couldn’t help himself. As Williams and Bates-Diop watched and began to jump with excitement, their teammate finally broke down before the two came over to embrace him.
Then, just as it has done all year, the rest of the team followed its seniors and joined in the group hug at center court.