As arguably the most inconsistent player on the 2015-16 Ohio State men’s basketball squad, many wondered how freshman guard JaQuan Lyle would follow up his career-high 29-point outburst in OSU’s previous game at Indiana.
In fact, just as many wondered how the Buckeyes would respond as a whole, after their seven-game winning streak was ended in convincing fashion by way of a 25-point drubbing by the Hoosiers.
On Wednesday evening, playing at home against Rutgers, both responses were positive, a critical step forward for the young player and his young team.
OSU (12-6, 4-1) looked shaky at best in the first half, but responded with a dominant second-half surge to top Rutgers (6-12, 0-5) 94-68 behind a triple-double from Lyle. The Evansville, Indiana, native exploded for 16 points to go along with 12 rebounds and 11 assists.
“It’s a great thing to do,” Lyle said. “I’ve just got to keep getting better every game, and hopefully I can get another one.”
The opening half saw OSU outscored 41-39 by the visitors for two glaring reasons: a showcase of unreasonably hot shooting by the Scarlet Knights and a lack of contribution by any OSU player besides Lyle.
Rutgers shot 6-of-13 from 3-point range in the first half, led by four triples by freshman Corey Sanders. The guard led all scorers in the first half with 17 points, including a 3-pointer and a four-point play on Rutgers’ first two offensive possessions.
The Scarlet Knights continued to do damage from the outside throughout the first half, eventually building a lead as big as eight. But the Buckeyes, led predominantly by Lyle, were able to climb back to make it a two-point game at the break.
“Offensively, we weren’t that bad,” OSU coach Thad Matta said of the opening half. “But defensively, we were just not active, not moving, not guarding.”
Lyle’s sensational first half saw him score 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting, as well as 10 of the Buckeyes’ 14 rebounds — his first collegiate double-double — and all four of their assists.
Besides Lyle, junior forward Marc Loving and sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop chipped in seven points apiece, but a combined two points from centers Trevor Thompson, Daniel Giddens and David Bell contributed to the rough start — though the Buckeyes did outscore Rutgers in the paint in the first half 22-14.
As Matta addressed his players in the locker room, the team knew one of those two items — Rutgers shooting the lights out or Lyle needing to carry the team — would have to turn around in the second half in order for OSU to be able to get back on the winning side.
But just one of those factors was not enough for Matta’s team; instead, the Buckeyes completely reversed both categories.
“He’s still a little fatigued,” Tate said of Matta’s angry halftime speech, noting that it played a big role in the Buckeyes coming out with a renewed sense of energy.
OSU opened the second half on a 13-0 run. During the stretch, four different Buckeyes scored, including back-to-back dunks by Thompson.
“It wasn’t a lot of Xs and Os at halftime,” a hoarse Matta said. “It was more challenging guys to just do a better job of what we needed to do.”
On the other end, Rutgers missed its first four shots of the half — including three jumpers — and turned the ball over three times.
OSU continued to pound away at the second-year Big Ten members from there, scoring 28 of the first 36 points of the second half. By the time the clock hit zero, six Buckeyes had scored double-figure points: Lyle, Loving, Bates-Diop, Thompson, redshirt sophomore guard Kam Williams and sophomore forward Jae’Sean Tate.
“We had to get on board with (Lyle) in the second half,” Tate said. “Everybody could play better, and throughout the season we just have to show we can do it from start to finish.”
The second half featured a showcase of alley-oops from the Buckeyes, as they connected on six lobs in the period, including two series of consecutive hook-ups. A series of five consecutive field goals assisted by Lyle got him over the double-digit mark for the triple-double.
“The coaches told me I needed four more, and, you know, the guys helped me out with that by finishing the plays,” Lyle said.
After Sanders’ 17-point first-half outburst, he only managed three points in the final 20 minutes. However, he still led all scorers with 20 points. Rutgers as a team shot just 33.3 percent from the field in the second half, including 0-of-7 from beyond the 3-point arc.
“We just played harder in the second half,” Tate said. “We got a little lower in our stances, tougher boxing out, just making sure we keep possession of the ball on the rebounds. Just playing harder.”
A lowlight for the Scarlet and Gray continued to come at the free-throw line, where they shot just 15-of-24 on the evening.
Lyle’s performance was the second triple-double by a freshman guard in as many meetings with Rutgers after D’Angelo Russell registered one last season. Those two were the only triple-doubles by a freshman in OSU history.
“His size was a factor in his effectiveness,” Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said of the 6-foot-5 Lyle. “He was the straw that stirred the drink tonight, no doubt about it.”
The Buckeyes will look to keep its second-half momentum alive as it heads into College Park, Maryland, for a matchup with the No. 3 Terrapins. Tipoff is set for noon on Saturday.