Entering Ohio State’s first-round NIT game against Akron motivation was a concern. Early on, the Buckeyes didn’t seem to have it and that nearly cost them the opportunity to extend their season.
A dismal offensive start and inconsistent defense hampered Ohio State (21-13) early in the opening game of the NIT, forcing the Buckeyes to come back from a four-point halftime deficit to top Akron (26-9) 72-63 in overtime.
After 22 lead changes in regulation the teams went to overtime locked at 62. Marc Loving scored the first two points of the extra period and the Buckeyes wouldn’t trail in overtime as the Zips missed five free throws in the final five minutes. Four straight points from Kam Williams down the stretch sealed the victory.
The overtime drama was all set up by a dreadful start from both teams.
Ohio State missed its first five shots and started the night just 1 of 11 as the third-seeded Buckeyes and sixth-seeded Zips both struggled offensively in front of 4,068 fans at Value City Arena in the early going. The teams combined to start 2 of 14 from the field and the game was tied at just 3-3 more than five minutes into the contest.
“We were down four at halftime and we didn’t play our best basketball we felt like,” Loving said. “We felt like there was a lot of room for us to play our style of basketball, we didn’t really have much pace on offense and we really weren’t disrupting them on the defensive side like we wanted to.”
Ohio State finally reached 20 points on the evening when a layup from JaQuan Lyle gave the Buckeyes a 20-19 advantage with 4:00 left in the contest. The Zips, however, scored on three of their final four possessions, including two threes, to take a 29-25 lead into intermission.
The Buckeyes battled back in the second half, taking their largest lead of the game at 44-40 with 13:39 left, but Akron wouldn’t go away. The Zips responded with baskets on three consecutive trips, the last of which a transition dunk that followed a bad Lyle turnover, to regain the lead 46-44.
Ohio State responded with a 6-0 run of its own to regain the lead and had a 52-48 advantage thanks to a Loving layup with 7:35 remaining before the Zips erased it with one fell swoop. Reggie McAdams hit a three in transition – his first make since hitting the Zips first shot of the game – and was fouled on the try by Lyle, hitting the free throw to tie the game.
“They’re very competitive and it came down to the wire where I feel like we showed a little bit of growth because I feel like at times this season we might have lost this game,” Loving said. “Just being able to get this experience under our belt is a plus for us.”
Neither team would lead by more than a possession for the rest of regulation and the Zips and Buckeyes swapped the lead twice seven times over the final seven minutes. A layup from Lyle knotted the score at 62 and neither team could find the basket for the final 2:17 of the second half.
Williams got his first career start in the win, replacing Keita Bates-Diop as the forward missed the game with an illness. Already without starting forward Jae’Sean Tate, who was lost for the season to a shoulder injury in late February, Matta’s rotation was limited to just seven players. Williams finished with 18 points in the narrow victory, 13 in the second half and overtime.
“Guys had to push on, they had to get stops, they had to come up with rebounds,” Matta said. “We needed buckets down the stretch and guys got them. We made our free throws. Hopefully they understand, and as I told them, ‘We’re down two men tonight, two of our best players, most experienced players. With that said, take advantage of your opportunity.’ Kam’s a guy that definitely did that. He has a motor. I think when he sleeps his legs move because he’s always got energy.”
The short bench meant Williams and Loving played all 45 minutes while Lyle sat for just 1:04 of game time. Loving finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds while Lyle also had a double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds. Williams, Lyle and Loving combined to attempt 50 of the team’s 67 field goals.
“Keita does a lot for this team,” Loving said. “He plays pretty good defense, he’s a threat on offense and he’s a guy that was very key in our rotation. To have something like that disappear from your lineup that fast, the next man has to step up and we all have to contribute in a different way.”
The Zips, who entered the game shooting 38.9 percent from three, connected on just 9 of 42 tries from behind the arc (21.4 percent) and struggled at the free throw line, hitting 8 of 20 (40 percent). The Buckeyes, meanwhile, went 21 of 23 from the charity stripe (91.3 percent).
The win improves Ohio State to 7-1 all-time against Akron and 11-2 in the NIT.
Matta was hopeful that Bates-Diop would be back when the Buckeyes host the winner of second-seeded Florida and seven-seeded North Florida in Value City Arena at noon Sunday in the tournament’s second round.