But it wasn’t enough as Arizona was too tall, too deep and too athletic for Ohio State to overcome a poor shooting night from its best player and the Buckeyes (24-11) season came to an end with a 73-58 loss to the Wildcats in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore., Saturday.
Thanks to an effective zone defense and good ball movement, the Buckeyes went to the break trailing Arizona just 26-25, but Ohio State couldn’t maintain that effort after intermission.
“They have a shot to win the national championship,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said of the Wildcats. “We had to play like we played in the first half and they had to play like they played in the first half in the second half.”
Unfortunately for Ohio State, that isn’t what happened.
The Buckeyes started the game fired up and got on the board first with a three from senior Shannon Scott on their first possession. Ohio State was able to build a six-point lead, gaining a 21-15 advantage with 6:27 left in the first half on a balanced effort as five different Buckeyes scored in the game’s first 14 minutes and five of the team’s first eight field goals were assisted.
That six-point edge came during the most productive stretch of the evening from D’Angelo Russell. The freshman started the game by missing his first four attempts, but connected on two of three shots during a personal 5-0 run that gave Ohio State it’s largest lead.
Russell, a player that shot 44.9 percent for the season, went just 3 of 19 against the Wildcats, scoring just nine points. It was only the second time all year that the Buckeyes star was held to single digits, though he did finish with six assists and seven rebounds.
“I just missed shots, honestly,” Russell said. “I can’t really say what they did, I feel like it was me. It wasn’t them. I had a couple good looks, a couple layups. I just missed shots.”
As it turned out, Russell, who declined to comment on whether he would declare for the NBA draft and make Saturday’s game his last as a Buckeye, missed too many for Ohio State to overcome.
After Ohio State built that six-point advantage, Arizona began to figure out the Buckeyes zone defense that had baffled them in the early going. The Wildcats began to dissect the 2-3 zone with their passing rather than dribble penetration, placing forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the free throw line to suck Ohio State defenders in.
As a result, the Wildcats hit three of their final seven field goals of the first half, all of which were assisted by Hollis-Jefferson and all of which came at the rim, to take the one-point margin into intermission.
After the break the creating shifted to point guard T.J. McConnell and the open looks came from beyond the three-point line.
“With the zone they just started finding the weak spots, hitting the middle,” Jae’Sean Tate said. “Once they hit the middle they just kind of passed it inside out to get them open threes and a couple of their guys got hot.”
The main culprit in that regard was Arizona sixth-man Gabe York. The junior went 4 of 6 from three in the second half, scoring 16 of his game-high 19 points to power the Wildcats to victory.
York’s third make of the half gave Arizona its first double-digit advantage, 46-36 with 11:52 left and the Buckeyes would not cut the margin to less than eight for the rest of the game.
“Obviously he was in there to do one thing and one thing only,” Matta said of York. “In the first half they had a couple decent looks that didn't go down for them. Once he got going, and we made a couple of big-time mistakes in terms of our rotations, you know, that was kind of the difference in the game. They got into double-digits there. We were telling our guys, ‘Hey, they got one guy out there that's looking to shoot the basketball.’
“The MVP for Arizona was McConnell. That kid was unbelievable both offensively and defensively today. Just did a great, great job.”
While York was splashing threes, McConnell was engineering the Wildcats offensive attack and headlining the defensive effort on Russell. The senior finished with 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and five steals.
While the guards led the scoring charge for Arizona, its imposing front line made sure the Buckeyes wouldn’t get back in it, denying Ohio State clean looks at the rim and dominating on the glass. The Wildcats outrebounded the Buckeyes 43-26, including a 25-19 edge on the offensive glass.
“The rebounding, you can point to that, that’s what they do, but I thought the gameplan we had leading into the game was good,” Matta said.
“What you do is you have to kind of pick your poison with them. They’re not a three-point shooting team. The day you have to prepare you say, ‘Hey, let’s stop the inside.’ I thought we did a pretty decent job of that. A guy gets hot and that’s what this tournament is all about.”
Hollis-Jefferson made it three Wildcats in double figures with 11 points to go along with 10 rebounds. Stanley Johnson also had 10 boards while Kaleb Tarczewski had nine.
With Russell struggling, Ohio State was led offensively by Sam Thompson as the senior finished with 18 points in his final college game. Classmate Shannon Scott added 10.