The Ohio State Buckeyes approached their Saturday matchup against the No. 5 North Carolina Tar Heels brimming with positive energy and growing momentum. In front of a national audience, the Buckeyes had a chance to move from scrappy underdogs to legitimate tournament threat.
Despite the good vibes surrounding coach Chris Holtmann’s squad, the Tar Heels outplayed the Buckeyes in route to a commanding 86-72 victory.
For Holtmann, the grip loosened on just a handful of plays spawned by Ohio State mental errors.
“A lot of [three point shots] came out of their motion, with just typical screening actions,” Holtmann said postgame. “We lost Berry one time in that as well. Obviously, we had a transition breakdown on another one. When your margin for error is really, really razor thin you just have to be able to eliminate those kinds of stretches.”
Ohio State headed into Saturday following three matchups against teams with established three point identities. Appalachian State ranks 28th in attempts from deep, The Citadel comes in seventh, and William & Mary hits threes at a near 46 percent clip, good for second nationally. In those games, however, the Buckeyes defense averaged just seven makes on less than 27 percent shooting.
Yet North Carolina feasted beyond the arc, hitting 13 shots on 25 attempts, their second highest total this season. For the most part, the Buckeyes protected the perimeter valiantly, heavily contesting most looks. Time after time, though, shots fell for the Tar Heels anyway, and when Ohio State’s intensity dipped, North Carolina pounced.
North Carolina freshman Jalek Felton, who entered the contest with just seven made three point shots, finished four of five from deep, including this heat check in the face of Andrew Dakich:
A razor thin margin for error indeed.
Given North Carolina’s propensity to run and get to the bucket, the three point shot was not an integral part of the Buckeyes’ game plan. Ohio State’s scouting report was clear.
“Transition. The way they get the ball up the court so fast, even on made baskets is going to be key,” Jae’Sean Tate said before the game. “Trying to make them play in the half court is basically what we’re going to have to try and do.”
Limiting transition was an important aspect of the game plan, and for good reason, as North Carolina ranks 12th in adjusted tempo, per KenPom. Largely, Ohio State did a good job limiting runouts, but several Tar Heel shots opened up by a lack of communication as the Buckeyes backpedaled toward the basket. Again, in an otherwise tightly contested matchup, small blunders made the difference.
More than anything, the wrong side of an 18-4 stretch doomed Ohio State. With 5:37 left in the first half, the score was tied at 23. Two early fouls to Keita Bates-Diop, though, sent him to the bench early, fearing that a third foul would bury the team in the second half. North Carolina capitalized, securing a commanding lead they would never relinquish.
Bates-Diop and Tate failing to carry the offense has been a prevailing theme in Buckeye losses. The issue stems from a lack of depth, which is usually bandaged over by creatively concocted Holtmann lineups.
C.J. Jackson did perform admirably, scoring the Buckeyes’ first 11 points and 19 overall. Kaleb Wesson also picked up 12 points in the second half after a scoreless first. But Ohio State simply does not have the firepower to sustain an effective attack when Bates-Diop and Tate are underperforming or off the floor for long stretches.
Ohio State has one more non-conference matchup left, this time against the Miami (OH) RedHawks on Saturday in Columbus. The Buckeyes kick off conference play Monday, when they head to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes.