Ohio State's Aaron Craft, right scrambles for a steal against Kansas' Elijah Johnson. The Jayhawks shot 51 percent from the floor, while the Buckeyes made just 31 percent.
COLUMBUS — At one point during Ohio State’s coldest stretch any player could remember Saturday, coach Thad Matta turned to the bench and gave voice to the exasperation that gripped a sold-out Value City Arena.
“I said, ‘Hey let’s call a play where we score,’ ” he recalled.
It was the kind of day OSU would have struggled throwing a beach ball into a canyon — and the result was a 74-66 loss to No. 9 Kansas.
In other words, for the seventh-ranked Buckeyes (9-2), life after the forecasted end of the world looked a lot like life before it.
They couldn’t beat Kansas (10-1), falling to their adversary in last year’s Final Four for the third time in just over a year, and couldn’t ease the pressure on star forward Deshaun Thomas.
There was nothing fundamentally wrong with Ohio State’s offense.
Time and again, with Thomas facing near-constant double teams, Ohio State’s guards drove the lane and kicked the ball to a wide-open shooter positioned beyond the arc. It was the final detail that proved problematic.
The same way Ohio State’s touch went missing in its only stiff previous test — a 73-68 loss at current No. 1 Duke — the Buckeyes went more than 10 minutes of the second half without a field goal.
A game Ohio State once led by eight points slipped away in a clanking hail of wayward shots. After Thomas hit a 3-pointer to push OSU ahead 40-37 with 18:23 left in the second half, the Buckeyes missed their next 10 shots. They made 9 of 36 shots from the field during the last 20 minutes and shot a season-low 31 percent (20 of 65) overall.
Kansas shot 51 percent (25 of 49) and relied on a game-high 22 points from 6-foot-5 freshman guard Ben McLemore to build a 64-52 lead before shifting into autopilot.
“We had great shots,” said Thomas, who scored a team-high 16 points on 4-of-11 shooting. “They just weren’t falling.”
Said Matta: “We needed that one to go. We needed the tide to turn for us. We had some great drive and kicks and just, whew, it was one after the other.”
For both teams, this nationally televised showdown before a crowd of 19,049 offered the chance for a validating victory.
Matta saw the game as an ideal gauge before the Buckeyes venture next month into a Big Ten that is as robust in basketball — with five teams ranked among the top 13 — as it was not in football.
The eight-time defending Big 12 champion Jayhawks had length, star power and experience. With four senior starters and the freshman McLemore as its leading scorer, KU came to Columbus after beating Colorado, Belmont and Richmond in succession by an average of more than 30 points.
“Who starts four seniors at this level anymore?” Matta said afterward, admiringly. “As I told them, I haven’t had four seniors in like eight years.”
He added: “That was about as high-level a basketball game as you’ll find this time of year,” Matta said. “I said before the game, I felt Kansas may be with the exception of [No. 1] Illinois my first year here, may be the best team that’s came in here, with the level they were playing at coming into the game. Their experience showed in the tapes we had watched.”
And, ultimately, it also showed Saturday, though it was McLemore who showed the way. After a layup by reserve center Amir Williams cut the Buckeyes’ deficit to four at 56-52 with 7:17 remaining, McLemore scored the next six points — including on a rattling mid-range jumper and a dunk off an inbounds pass — to push the Jayhawks’ lead to double digits.
Ohio State, meanwhile, could not answer, missing all but two of its 18 3-pointers in the second half — an issue that threatens to define the season. With past marksmen Jon Diebler and Toledo native William Buford having graduated over the past two years, the Buckeyes lack a reliable outside threat to take the heat off their primary scorer. They shot 34 percent from the field and 29 percent from beyond the arc in the loss against Duke.
The Jayhawks doubled Thomas away from the basket and trapped him in the post because others could not make them pay. Lenzelle Smith missed all seven of his 3s, Craft was 2 of 6 and LaQuinton Ross was 0 for 3.
Shannon Scott added 15 points off the bench for the Buckeyes. KU center Jeff Withey, the nation’s leading shot-blocker, had 14 points, 10 rebounds and a block.
“You’ve got to put the ball in the basket, and we couldn’t do it,” Matta said. “It became contagious throughout.”
Ultimately, he gleans hope from the Buckeyes hanging close on a day they could not have gone icier.
“It’s maybe not as bad as I think it is right now,” Matta said.
“We came out and battled,” Craft said. “We didn’t really back down. Basketball is a simple game. Get stops and put the ball in the bucket, and we weren’t doing either tonight. The worst thing we can do is overcomplicate things and look for secrets and easy short cuts. It comes down to getting tough and making the stops when we need to and making shots.”
As for that last wish, Matta laughed.
“Well, I asked Santa for Christmas to improve our jump shooting,” he said. “So we’re going to find out.”