Felix Okpara steps in for Zed Key, but Ohio State's inexperience shows in Maryland loss

COLLEGE PARK, Md. − It’s been a while since Ohio State has opened a game with three freshmen on the court.

It didn’t go well then, and it didn’t go great this time, either. With third-year center Zed Key unavailable due to a left shoulder sprain suffered in Thursday’s home loss to Purdue, freshman center Felix Okpara made his first career start Saturday at Maryland. When he went up for the opening tip, and then had to do it again for some reason, he did so with classmates Brice Sensabaugh and Bruce Thornton also on the court for the No. 24 Buckeyes.

Ohio State lost 80-73 and trailed for 28:55 against the unranked Terrapins. The last time the Buckeyes started three freshmen? An 86-51 loss at Purdue on March 2, 2019, when Justin Ahrens, Jaedon LeDee and Luther Muhammad started. This was a more competitive game than that was, but a Maryland team without a traditional center proved to be a difficult matchup for the 6-foot-11, 220-pound Okpara.

Key’s impact was felt when the Buckeyes needed a basket but couldn’t throw the ball into the post for their big man, this team’s third-leading scorer and leading rebounder. He watched the game in street clothes.

Ohio State Buckeyes: Join the Ohio State Sports Insider text group with Bill Rabinowitz, Joey Kaufman Adam Jardy

“It’s significant because it takes a low-post scorer out and Felix just isn’t there yet,” Holtmann said. “It’s too much to expect him to be there, and he got in foul trouble, which hurt us as well. As much as anything, in a game like this when you want to play through the post like we normally do, we just weren’t able to do that today. We look forward to getting him back whenever he’s ready.”

Okpara picked up two fouls in the first 8:22, a third with 4:46 left in the first half and was on the court for only 5:59 during the second half. He finished with 2 points and did not have a rebound in 12 total minutes of playing time.

'We know how to win with the other guys we have. We’ve just got to figure that out'

The Buckeyes will host Minnesota on Thursday before going to Rutgers on Sunday. It’s possible Key will be back for one of those games.

“It’s Zed Key,” said OSU's Isaac Likekele. “We know what he brings to the table, offensively and defensively. I feel like that’s self-explanatory, but like coach Holtmann said, that’s no excuse. We know how to win with the other guys we have. We’ve just got to figure that out.”

Without Key, Maryland out-rebounded Ohio State 40-26 and pulled down 14 on the offensive end. When he looked at the stat sheet after the game, the rebounding disparity was the first thing Justice Sueing said he noticed.

“We can’t win the Big Ten giving up that big of a margin in rebounds,” he said. “They killed us on it and made us play. They capitalized on a lot of them. That’s where I feel like a lot of the momentum shift came from.”

Ohio State center Felix Okpara scores against Maryland on Sunday. It was Okpara's only basket in the game.
Ohio State center Felix Okpara scores against Maryland on Sunday. It was Okpara's only basket in the game.

Foul troubles plague Ohio State, Maryland

The Buckeyes and Terrapins were whistled for a combined 46 fouls, 28 of which were called on OSU. Maryland was able to keep Ohio State at bay partly due to its performance at the line: the Terrapins were 16 for 18 (88.9%) in the second half and 27 for 33 (81.8%) for the game while the Buckeyes were 16 for 19 (84.2%) for the game.

Guard Jahmir Young did most of the damage, scoring a career-high 30 points while drawing 10 fouls and going 13 for 15 from the line.

“He’s a good player,” Holtmann said. “I thought he was really hard to contain. Kevin did a good job putting him in spots. He was key to the game.”

The game featured only two stretches of more than 2½ minutes without a foul being called, one in each half. Each lasted, oddly, 2:42. The cumulative effect was a clunky game with little in the way of flow.

“It definitely impacts us,” Sueing said. “We’re really good offensively, but regardless in the Big Ten we’re going to have to be able to get stops, be able to play straight-up, be able to guard our man, play as a team defensively. That’s what it comes down to. Regardless of what we feel is the right call or not, we’ve got to go out there and convert our game plan defensively and that’ll help us get us going offensively.”

Sensabaugh fouled out with 45 seconds to play.

Maryland's Donta Scott blocks the shot of Ohio State's Brice Sensabaugh.
Maryland's Donta Scott blocks the shot of Ohio State's Brice Sensabaugh.

“I think he was just getting frustrated in general with some things,” Holtmann said. “He’s a young kid. Young kids get frustrated and have frustrated moments in games. We had several of them (freshmen) out there, four of them at times. It’s a part of the process. He’ll learn from and move forward. He’s getting a lot of attention on offense and they were attacking him.”

The Buckeyes are now 0-4 this season when committing at least 20 fouls. Ohio State was whistled for 20 against San Diego State, 25 against Duke and 22 against North Carolina.

Holtmann said they need to be better about not letting whistles affect their play.

“It hurt us, and we’ve got to be better at just playing,” he said. “I thought today we were looking over too much at the bench. We just need to play more. A game like this forces you to play and I think that’s where we struggled a little bit with our inexperience. We’ll hopefully be better at that as we play more press back to man, press back to zone teams. You just need to have a certain level of aggressiveness and I thought we were too tentative at times and didn’t move well enough at times.”

Pressure again disrupts Ohio State for crucial stretch vs. Maryland

At the half, Ohio State had turned the ball over four times but never in bunches. That changed in the second half, where the Buckeyes had five in the first three minutes. They would finish with 12, the same number they had in last Sunday’s win at Northwestern, but the three-minute stretch to open the second half felt similar to the loss to North Carolina where Ohio State had three in the span of 78 seconds during the second half as the Tar Heels used their full-court pressure to bother the Buckeyes.

Thursday night against Purdue, Sueing’s turnover against the Boilermakers’ pressure in the final 20 seconds set up Fletcher Loyer’s game-winning 3-pointer.

Holtmann said Maryland’s press was different than what Purdue or North Carolina did and that the issues aren’t necessarily connected. Of the five turnovers in the first three minutes of the second half against the Terrapins, only Thornton’s two were directly attributable to the press.

“There was maybe a walk in the halfcourt and one in the full court,” Holtmann said. “We’ve obviously got to get better against the press.”

Ohio State’s 12 turnovers were the fewest forced by Maryland since UCLA had only four on Dec. 14, 2022. That was five games ago. The 12 turnovers are tied for the fifth-fewest forced by the Terrapins this season.

“There were obviously those couple of plays we turned it over or didn’t convert when they were pressuring us, but overall I’m confident in our backcourt and our guards handling the ball,” Sueing said. “As the season continues to go on we’re going to be fine, but I think we just should’ve been a little more aggressive with them turning it up on us with their press.”

The bigger issue was Maryland’s ability to restrict how much time Ohio State’s offense had to work. The Terrapins would typically pick up the Buckeyes with their full-court pressure after a made basket or a dead ball and then drop back into either a man or zone defense.

“They haven’t seen a defense like this in terms of the matchup zone,” Holtmann said. “We tried to prepare them for it, but as much as anything we’ve got to play against it. We obviously need to get them more ready than what we did.”

If Ohio State broke the press successfully, it then had about 15 seconds to try and get a good shot.

“I think when you have three freshmen in the lineup, they’ve got to learn that in the midst of game experience,” Holtmann said. “You can tell them what it’s going to be like but they’ve got to learn it. Hopefully this is a learning experience for us.”


Get more Ohio State basketball news by listening to our podcasts

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio State basketball, Felix Okpara struggle without Zed Key