Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta made some changes to his lineup for his team’s showdown with Penn State, but it was a guy who had been a starter all season long that proved to be the most vital Monday night at the Schottenstein Center.
Freshmen A.J. Harris and Daniel Giddens cracked the starting five, replacing classmate JaQuan Lyle and redshirt sophomore center Trevor Thompson, but Keita Bates-Diop’s performance was what lifted the Buckeyes to a 66-46 win over the Nittany Lions.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore forward dropped 22 points, on 8-of-14 shooting, four of which came from beyond the arc. He also added in eight rebounds.
“I felt the need to (be more aggressive) tonight,” Bates-Diop said. “It was due time.”
Sophomore forward Jae’Sean Tate balanced Bates-Diop’s performance with 15 points, four rebounds and three assists. A third Buckeye, junior forward Marc Loving, also reached double-figure scoring, as he had 11 points.
The balance was key for OSU on Monday night, which shot 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from downtown.
The move from a reserve role to the starting lineup for Harris and Giddens was deserved, Matta said.
“I don’t want to say it was easy, but it was something that those guys probably earned the right to start,” the coach said.
With the new-look lineup, Bates-Diop was aggressive from the start, seeking his shot early and often. His assertiveness, coupled with the spark Harris and Giddens provided, helped OSU grab control for much of the first half.
This was slightly by design, Matta explained after the game. He said that Harris’ ability to be active on defense and put pressure on Penn State senior guard Devin Foster should’ve helped OSU set the tone early.
Penn State began the game struggling mightily from the field — through the first 10 minutes it had missed all 10 of its 3-point attempts, while shooting a combined 25 percent from the field.
In that span, the Buckeyes were able to use high levels of energy and ball movement to create open shots, which they converted to race out to a 17-8 lead.
The Nittany Lions definitely were struggling on their own, but the spark of energy OSU brought from the tip certainly contributed to the shooting woes.
With a flurry of passing and movement without the ball, the Buckeyes engineered plenty of quality looks from downtown for their shooters, which they did not waste.
The Scarlet and Gray made six of their first 10 attempts from beyond the arc, making up 18 of their first 29 points. Of the six made 3-pointers, sophomore guard Keita Bates-Diop had three of them.
Even when OSU wasn’t making shots on its first attempt, the high volume of energy it was playing with helped overcome the misses.
On one sequence with less than three minutes to play in the first half, freshman forward Mickey Mitchell got fought for back-to-back offensive rebounds after misses.
After corralling his second rebound, he pulled it out near the top of the key, before driving back into the lane where he fed a cutting Giddens, who slammed it home and was fouled.
He missed the free throw but the two-handed dunk expanded the Buckeyes’ lead to 31-18.
The Nittany Lions, sensing the game beginning to slip from their grasp, responded in the half’s final 2:45, going on a 8-2 run to make things 33-26 at the intermission.
Despite high-percentage shooting and ravid energy in the opening 20 minutes, it did not come without consequence. In the Buckeyes quest to outwork the Nittany Lions, they forgot to take care of the basketball, which really was the main reason why Penn State had it within seven points at the break.
OSU coughed up the rock 10 times, which resulted in 10 points for Penn State — 38 percent of its first-half point total.
The large sum of turnovers didn’t totally nullify OSU’s efforts, but when a team makes six 3-pointers, shoots 44 percent from the field and has three players with at least seven points, a lead greater than seven would usually be expected.
“Coach just talked to us at halftime, cut down turnovers,” Bates-Diop said. “Take a deep breath, hold it, make the right decision. You don’t need homerun passes or anything. Just make the simple play.”
Matta’s talked worked for the Buckeyes, as they came out in the second half with the same energy and ball movement, but they were able to kick the turnovers to the curb to fend off the Nittany Lions.
They finished the game with 15 turnovers, which is still a little high for Matta’s liking, but he was pleased that they only had five in the second 20 minutes.
“I think that is (still an issue.) I want to play perfect, I want to play with no turnovers,” Matta said. “We’ve got to keep hammering that home.”
Increasing tempo a little more and opting to attack the rim more frequently, OSU bumped its lead out to 42-30 after two layups from Bates-Diop and one from Harris.
A 3-pointer from Lyle after the basketball zigged and zagged across the hardwood made things 47-32. It was Lyle’s second triple of the night in as many attempts.
Despite coming off the bench for the first time in his rookie campaign, the Indiana native did not look flustered. In fact, he looked slightly more relaxed, as if Matta’s message was received.
He was wide open on both his successful 3-pointers, but when he wasn’t spotting up, he was using his dribble to collapse the defense to generate shots for his teammates.
The Nittany Lions tried to find ways to claw back into the game, but they couldn’t muster anything substantial, as the Buckeyes did not get complacent in game’s final 10 minutes to secure the 20-point victory.
Senior forward Brandon Taylor was the leading scorer for Penn State, but he had just 11 points on 5-of-16 shooting. As a team, the Nittany Lions converted on just 33 percent of their shots.
“This was a good win,” Matta said. “I loved the start that we got. We had a few breaks in the action but, we’re sitting eight games into the Big Ten 5-3, Thursday night is another big game for us.”
The game Matta referenced is scheduled to be against Illinois on the road. Tip-off versus the Fighting Illini is set for 9 p.m. on Thursday in Champaign, Illinois.