Big Ten Tournament: ‘Got to relax and have fun’: Buckeyes open tournament victorious by playing with joy

Sean McNeil, Justice Sueing and Chris Holtmann answer questions after the game.
Sean McNeil, from left, Justice Sueing and coach Chris Holtmann answer questions after the game. (Kyle Williams/MEDILL)

By Kyle Williams
Medill Reports

Ohio State defeated Wisconsin 62-57 in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament held at the United Center in Chicago on Wednesday.

Graduate transfer Sean McNeil’s team-leading 17 points helped set the tone for an Ohio State team playing for its NCAA Tournament life. 

“Sean’s a great player. Him going to his left or right is very dangerous against teams, so they don’t know whether to press up or back up,” said freshman guard Bruce Thornton, who scored 15 points. “We just let him be Sean, make wide-open 3s and pressure the defense as well. We have Sean playing like that, it will be very hard to beat us.” 

After being pegged to finish sixth in the Big Ten, Ohio State finished 13th. The Buckeyes struggled mightily on the road: going 1-10 away from Schottenstein Center. And the Wisconsin fan base traveled well, screaming at every perceived bad foul call and cheering at every Wisconsin run. This win was Ohio State’s first victory outside of the state of Ohio since Jan. 1. 

Defensively, the Buckeyes stifled the Wisconsin offense in the first half. The Badgers shot 7-for-23 from the field, only mustering 18 points. Senior forward Justice Sueing said that getting off to a fast start was a point of emphasis for Ohio State.

“I think the main thing is that we’re going into the game saying we can’t start off slow,” Sueing said. “We have to start off by hitting them in the mouth and not letting it happen to us.” 

Turnovers, fouls and missed free throws allowed Wisconsin to chip at the lead in the second half despite Ohio State holding a 27-point lead at one point during the second half. After trailing by 27, the Badgers faced a five-point deficit with two minutes remaining. During their run, coach Chris Holtmann had to get his young team to settle down.

“I just kept reminding them to relax and have fun,” Holtmann said. This is a fun game: Got to relax and have fun. It’s a lot for young kids. I thought we had some guys play a little bit tighter, maybe than what they were certainly doing earlier.” 

Ohio State played three freshmen in its rotation – Thornton, Brice Sensabaugh and Felix Okpara. Those three, along with Sueing, played the most minutes for the Buckeyes. Holtmann said afterward that the young players have developed over the last couple of weeks, coinciding with the team’s best stretch of play, which includes wins over Illinois and Maryland. 

“Our young guys have also emerged,” Holtmann said. You know, you’re seeing a guy like Bruce, who’s really – he’s leading us in so many ways right now. Probably earlier in the year, he was finding his way.”

Ohio State has endured a challenging season, losing nine consecutive games from Jan. 24 to Feb. 26. Thornton said it was important for the team to come out to a fast start. Despite the 5-15 conference record and bleak chances of making the NCAA Tournament, the team’s belief is still strong as they prepare to face Iowa in the second round.

“When we were going through our losing streak, it’s a tense feeling when you just keep losing,” Thornton said. “Now that we’ve won three of our last four games, you get this loose feeling, this free spirit, just playing basketball at the end of the day. In the games leading up to this, we just played with a free spirit and it showed today. We keep playing like that; we can play with anybody.”

Kyle Williams is a sports media graduate student at Northwestern. You can follow him at @K_Williamsmedia on Twitter.