Entering the year with only two players having significant playing time under their belt, the Ohio State basketball team was going to have its struggles early in the 2015-16 season.
When it has, the Buckeyes have had to turn to either Marc Loving or forward Jae’Sean Tate to facilitate the offense and against Northern Illinois, it was Tate’s night.
The Columbus native scored 11 points in the second half to propel Ohio State to a 67-54 win over the Huskies Wednesday night at Value City Arena.
Tate finished with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting, and corralled 10 rebounds to finish with a double-double to help Ohio State get back to .500 on the season.
According to his head coach Thad Matta Tate not only look over the game on the court, but also during a timeout in the second half that seeemed to elevate everyones play including his own.
"I think that kind of sort of energized us a little bit and connected us a little bit more. We're still looking for that consistency all the way through," Matta said. "The one thing we always talk about is ownership and taking ownership in the program. Take ownership in your play. With the dynamics of a new basketball team, I pulled him aside afterwards and just said, 'That is who you are. That's who you need to be.' Obviously when you lead from the front, it can make you a better player and I thought he was really good tonight."
Tate, who has expanded his game to better fit his size, was forced to play inside more against NIU as both Buckeye big men Trevor Thompson and Daniel Giddens got in early foul trouble.
With Giddens, who has been a defensive force for the Buckeyes in the paint early on in the season, on the bench the Huskies looked to take advantage. Northern Illinois center Marin Maric led his team in scoring with 17 points in addition to hitting 9-of-10 free throws.
Thompson got the start over Giddens for the Buckeyes and while he shot just 2-of-7 from the field, he hit on 6-of-7 free throws to finish with 10 points on the night and collected eight rebounds.
Despite the solid performance, Thompson said after the game he feels as though he has a way to go before reaching his full potential.
“Always room for improvement. I feel like I still haven’t played to the best of my abilities, but I’m just listening to my coaches and trying to play hard. Every day in practice we’re banging and getting better," he said.
Thompson and the Buckeyes went into the halftime locker room clinging to a 33-31 lead on just nine made shots. Luckily for Ohio State, 14 personal fouls by the Huskies put the scarlet and gray in the bonus and subsequent double bonus and they were able to convert on 12 of 18 first half attempts.
Tate said he believed Ohio State's energy level in the first half was not nearly as high as it should have been, which led to a lackluster opening 20 minutes.
“I think we came out playing hard, but I don’t think we came out to our full potential," he said. "We were kind of stuck in second gear there so when we came out in the second half, we put it all on the table. We’ve just got to continue to build on that and get that from the jump. We did play hard at first, but we still could play better.”
While seven first half turnovers hampered the Buckeye offense, Thompson led Ohio State in scoring and rebounds with eight and six respectively in the first frame.
Ohio State also committed seven turnovers in the second half, but also dished out eight assists as a team in the second frame as opposed to just two in the first, something Matta said is an area of focus for his team.
"We want to be a high assist, low turnover team," Matta said. "The ones we can't have are the entry pass turnovers. Those things just cant happen because they are leading to layups at the other end. I think they had 13 points off of our seven turnovers in the first half which is kind of hard to stomach. Then they get 14 points from the free throw line. We have got to do a better job with that."
After finishing with 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting against Connecticut, Marc Loving came out firing in the first half trying to make up for a lackluster performance against UConn.
However, Loving struggled against the second straight Husky team he faced as he missed six of his first seven shots and finished with just eight points on 3-of-12 shooting.
Sophomore Keita Bates-Diop picked up Loving’s slack as he poured in 14 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 3-of-4 from long range.
The Buckeyes finished the night as a team shooting 39.2 percent from the floor which could be problematic as Ohio State is set to take on No. 4 Kentucky Dec. 19 in Brooklyn.
As the Buckeyes prepare to take on one of the national powers in college basketball, Matta was focused on his team improving week by week heading into the much anticipated matchup.
"You are playing on a national stage and its a great event in terms of the four teams that are there. I just want to see growth," Matta said. "I want to see us play better than we did last Saturday and play better than we did tonight. I dont know a ton about them in terms of our game plan and what we need to do or how we need to do it but we will probably get that figured out tonight."