Ohio State freshman forward Justin Ahrens knew Iowa’s defensive gameplan: four-in, one-out with the focus, and usually the double-team, on sophomore forward and leading scorer Kaleb Wesson. So, Ahrens sat on the outside waiting, waiting for an opportunity to provide a spark, a spark that he usually saves for his time spent on the bench.
After driving to the basket, junior forward Andre Wesson passed the ball to the corner. Ahrens put up a 3 in front of the bench he usually occupied. Freshman guard Duane Washington, behind him, screamed “that’s in,” but Ahrens already knew that.
The freshman forward turned to his teammates and cracked a confident grin as the ball went in for one of six 3-point makes he had in Tuesday’s 90-70 win against the No. 22 Hawkeyes, Ohio State’s first win against a ranked opponent this season.
But for Ahrens, it’s more than just his individual performance — leading the team with 29 points, including 25 points in the second half. He said he did it for the team as a whole, to “punch a ticket” to the NCAA Tournament.
With that goal in mind, Ahrens’ mindset became one of punching his ticket every day: working hard in practice and getting prepared for each game because “practice makes perfect.”
Over the past two games, he has had an opportunity to show what he has learned on the practice court in games. He has played a combined 57 minutes against No. 24 Maryland and No. 22 Iowa after playing a total of 57 minutes in his previous nine games combined.
Watching him in his first two career starts, Holtmann has seen growth from Ahrens, one of four freshmen on the team.
“Like when you think about him a month ago, I guess at the Michigan game, he’s different, he’s a different player,” Holtmann said.
It seems to be a level of comfort on the floor, sinking 3s and back-pedaling back to play defense, raising his hand with his pointer finger attached to his thumb and showcasing to his team, the arena and the opposing bench what he just did.
But that confidence is something the freshman said he had to train himself in when he was younger.
“My dad always told me too, you know, you miss shots, you have to move on. If you make a bad play, you can’t hang your head on it, if you turn the ball over, you can’t hang your head on it,” Ahrens said. “You got to get back to the next play and make something happen.”
What separates Ahrens from other players to Holtmann is his macro focus, his selfless mentality. The head coach said the freshman forward has “lost himself” in finding ways to make the team better as a whole, whether it’s as a cheerleader on the bench or the scorer on the floor.
Ahrens saw the benefit of putting the team first. With the defensive looks the Hawkeyes were giving the Buckeyes, the ball was continually being passed to Ahrens on the outside, taking advantage of the open looks he was given.
And those consistent makes from deep brought something that Ahrens usually has on the bench: energy
“The whole team was going crazy and it’s just something you really want in a team,” Ahrens said. “It makes it that much more fun.”
After a career-high 29-point performance by Ahrens, who had not scored more than nine points in a single game up to that point, Holtmann did not want to confirm that the lineup spot he deemed “fluid” on Wednesday was filled.
“Are you saying he’s a lock to start the rest of the season?” Holtmann said jokingly. “He’s just got to keep working. He just has to keep his focus about the right things. He has to keep playing with confidence, he’s got to keep getting better.”