DURHAM, N.C. — Ohio State had Duke in a rare place in their raucous and sweltering hallowed hall Wednesday night.
Duke hadn’t lost a nonconference home game in 12 years, and the Buckeyes were in position to put an end to the amazing streak.
The No. 4 Buckeyes used an early 16-5 run to take control of the game’s flow, and as the first half gained steam, OSU grew dominant on the offensive glass and its physical defense didn’t allow the second-ranked Blue Devils to run their stuff. This put Ohio State in grand position to achieve something special.
But Thad Matta’s team allowed the monumental moment to slip away in a 73-68 loss.
“We let a great opportunity get away from us,” Shannon Scott said. “We really needed to keep pushing the lead. We started playing the clock and not our game and didn’t get it done.”
Ohio State had leads of 18-11 and 26-18 after a layup by Scott with 5:21 left in the first half. Scott’s basket bookended a 10:27 stretch where the Blue Devils failed to convert a shot from the floor. Duke led 9-7 when that stretch began, yet the Buckeyes could only build an eight-point margin.
To that point, Duke struggled getting good looks at the basket because the Buckeyes were terrific not letting the Devils run their stuff on offense. In fact, point guard Aaron Craft clearly got into the head of Duke’s Quinn Cook, who has only started a handful of games in his career.
Cook was barking more than usual, his facial expressions told an unpleasant tale, and on the other side Craft was almost all smiles. Furthermore, OSU dominated the glass, grabbing 11 offensive boards by halftime and 18 for the game but had only 17 second-chance points.
But Cook’s frustration and Craft’s good time didn’t translate into much for the Buckeyes. Cook settled down after halftime and eventually turned the tables: Craft was the one who appeared to lose some composure with his odd shot selection, forced passes and a few defensive snafus.
“Aaron Craft, he’s a heck of a contributor, and I just wanted to protect the ball and run our stuff,” said Cook, who wouldn’t acknowledge that Cook got into his head, but he didn’t brush aside the notion he affected the Buckeyes’ leader.
As Cook’s game stabilized, so did Duke’s. And the Buckeyes’ struggles putting the ball in the basket became the symbol for how OSU played the second half. It was just a bit off on everything. Its defense allowed Duke 50 second-half points on 58.1 percent shooting. Overall, Ohio State registered just six assists, and Deshaun Thomas and Craft combined to shoot 9-for-29 from the field after making 15 of 23 in last year’s rout of the Blue Devils in Columbus.
“I’m not happy,” Matta said. “I think that we go home and take a look at this thing and there’s going to be some areas where we had chances to make plays and we didn’t make plays. They scored two times in a row on the same play and we knew the play was coming and we didn’t guard it the way we were supposed to guard it. Yeah, it’s early in the season, but man, we’ve got to make those. You can’t give it up two times in a row.”
So where do the Buckeyes go from here?
For a program that was in the Final Four last season and has been one of the more successful in the nation since Matta arrived eight years ago, you can’t really sell that at least they competed at fabled Duke in the most challenging atmosphere in the nation. That might serve a developing program well, but Ohio State is fully established.
Thomas, Craft, Evan Ravenel, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and the others are better than accepting a what-could-have-been game at Duke or Kentucky or North Carolina or anywhere. Those players know the ropes at the highest level of major college basketball, so the only thing Ohio State should feel is disappointment, and it does.
“You have to be disappointed with the way I played in the situations,” said Craft, standing in a hallway outside of the locker room, still red-cheeked 20 minutes after the game ended. “I’m one of the guys that the kids have to look up to and I don’t think I lived up to that tonight.”
Similar situation may arise down the road, and how the Buckeyes respond next time will depend on what they learned from their trip to Tobacco Road.