Holden’s three at the buzzer lifts Ohio State over Rutgers 67-66 in the Big Ten opener

Zed Key grabs rebound vs. Rutgers (Photo: Adam Cairns/The Columbus Dispatch, USA TODAY Sports)

Tanner Holden hit a long three at the buzzer as No. 25 Ohio State pulled out a crazy 67-66 win over Rutgers in the Big Ten opener before 14,042 Thursday night at Value City Arena.

This game was tied at 57-57 at the under-four media timeout with 3:56 left in the game. But the Scarlet Knights hit a couple of clutch shots and some key free throws in the closing seconds to go ahead. OSU had a chance to take the lead in the final 20 seconds, but Brice Sensabaugh’s shot was blocked by Rutgers’ 6-11 center Clifford Omoruyi.

OSU cut it to 65-64 on a pair of free throws by Bruce Thornton with 5.8 seconds left. Rutgers’ Caleb McConnell hit 1 of 2 free throws with OSU’s Sensabaugh rebounding the miss. He got the ball to Thornton, who was bottled up on the sideline. He got it ahead of Holden, whose 28 footer from the right wing found nothing but net for the win.

“That one right there, boy, that was just how we drew it up,” OSU coach Chris Holtmann said. “I thought our guys stayed with it and played until the very end.”

Ohio State’s research shows it was the Buckeyes’ first win on a shot with 0.0 seconds left since Evan Turner hit a 37-foot three-pointer to defeat Michigan 69-68 in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament on March 12, 2010, in Indianapolis.

Holden’s game winner provided his only points in the game, as he finished 1 of 3 from the floor. He said the last time he hit a game-winning shot like he might have been in the fourth grade.

“It was actually pretty crazy,” Holden said of the play leading up to his game-winning shot. “We don’t have any timeouts. We’ve got to get the ball and go. He missed (the free throw). Brice did a good job of letting the ball bounce. BT came and got the ball. He was working really hard to get up the sideline and beat his guy. I just happened to get it open and BT passed it to me.

“I shot it and couldn’t really see because No. 3 (Mawot Mag) was in my way. I just heard the crowd go crazy. Then, I celebrated after that. Fifteen guys were rushing me. It was a crazy game. The Big Ten is a tough place to play and a tough place to win. It was almost one possession the entire game. Rutgers is definitely a tough team.”

He added, “It’s huge. For me, it’s a confidence booster. This is one game we’re going to learn from.”

Holtmann shared what he told his team in the final seconds.

“We gave them two calls at the very end, based on a make or a miss,” Holtmann said. “We practice those situations a lot. They did a good job taking away (Thornton’s) ability to get it down the floor. Having said that, Bruce made a really poised decision and what a heck of a shot by Tanner.”

The officials looked at the monitor and confirmed that Holden’s shot left his hand before the buzzer. They did not, however, review the entire play to see if Thornton may have stepped out of bounds before the pass or whether Holden, who had stepped out of bounds coming up the court, had fully established himself back inbounds before receiving the pass.

“I thought he went out of bounds, I’m not sure,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “He was right in front of me. They hit a huge three and won the game. We didn’t finish the deal and it’s disappointing.”

After averaging 20 points per game at Wright State this year, Holden came into this game averaging 5.0 points per game. Holtmann was asked about Holden’s transition from playing in the Horizon League to toiling in the Big Ten.

“The kid’s a gamer,” Holtmann said of Holden. “I mean, he’s made big shots. His whole life really made big shots. He made, I think, a game winning reception as a wide receiver in the state championship game.

“He’s got to get better defensively against this level of physicality and athlete, and he’s really got to improve on that end. But, man, I don’t want to get into that too much tonight, because I’m just really happy for the kid.”

Center Zed Key had a double-double with 22 points and 14 rebounds to lead Ohio State (7-2, 1-0). He was 9 of 12 from the floor, 1 of 2 on threes and 3 of 6 at the foul line.

“I think he was highly engaged in this game,” Holtmann said of Key. “And he knew how good this Rutgers team is. And he knows how good their big kid (Omoruyi) is. So I think that obviously really had his attention. But I think he’s been very consistent for us offensively.”

Key shared his view of Holden’s game winner.

“I almost passed out,” Key said. “I was yelling. I was down by the block to rebound. I just looked up in the air and said, ‘Oh wow, that’s going in,’ and then I just ran. It was a great shot and a great pass by Bruce and we got the W.”

The freshman Sensabaugh added 13 points for the Buckeyes.

The freshman Thornton added 10 points, five assists and four rebounds in a career-high 38-plus minutes. Justice Sueing added nine points and four rebounds, while Sean McNeil scored seven.

Ohio State was playing without senior guard Isaac Likekele, who had to return to his home state of Texas due to a family matter. Sensabaugh made his first career start in his place.

Omoruyi had 16 points and eight rebounds to lead Rutgers (6-3, 1-1), which had opened Big Ten play by knocking off No. 10 Indiana 63-48 last Saturday in Piscataway, NJ

“Obviously, this was a tough road game,” Pikiell said. “It was tough down the stretch. We were one play away (from winning). We have to give credit to Holtmann and Ohio State. They were tough and physical. I thought we made some plays down the stretch. We just didn’t get that last stop.”

Aundre Hyatt had 13 points and Cam Spencer scored 11 for the Scarlet Knights.

“Give Rutgers a lot of credit, man,” Holtmann said. “I think they are a really good team, I really do. They’re at full strength now. The two guys (Mulcahy and McConnell) who were out for a couple of their games really make a difference.”

With OSU’s fall semester exams beginning Friday and running through Dec. 15, this is the Buckeyes’ last game until they will play North Carolina (5-4) in the CBS Sports Classic on Sat., Dec. 17, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

Unlike in past years where OSU has played two Big Ten games in mid-December, this is the Buckeyes’ lone conference game this month. They will resume Big Ten play with a road game at Northwestern on Jan. 1.

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