ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Sizing up the opportunity from the right wing, Ohio State’s Roddy Gayle saw an opening and didn’t hesitate. The freshman guard attacked the middle of the court, got past his defender and drew another to create a wide-open opportunity for a teammate.
Gayle dumped the ball off to Zed Key, who was in position for an open layup. Maybe even a dunk. No one will ever know, because the pass glanced right off Key’s hands and out of bounds as the third-year center and team captain put his hands on his knees and stared at the floor in disbelief.
It didn’t decide the game. But the play was an accurate summarization of the latest in a series of disappointing results for Ohio State. Playing at rival Michigan, the Buckeyes showed more flashes of strong play than in recent games. A few different faces handled some of the scoring. At times, Ohio State was a bucket or two away from making it interesting.
But even with all that, Ohio State (11-12, 3-9 Big Ten) didn’t have enough of anything to beat Michigan (13-10, 7-5) in front of an announced sellout crowd at the Crisler Center. Key’s turnover came with Michigan leading 58-49 and 10:11 to play in what would become a 77-69 Michigan win.
The loss is Ohio State’s fourth straight and ninth in its past 10 games. Just like in Thursday’s home loss to Wisconsin, the Buckeyes never led. They are the only two games this season in which Ohio State has never held a lead.
“It’s hard to beat a team when we’re going back and forth,” sixth-year forward and captain Justice Sueing said. “I felt like they were killing us in transition and just some post work stuff. We’re going to continue to work to get better because that’s all that needs to get done. This team is more than capable, but we just need to turn that corner.”
The last time the Buckeyes were below .500 this late in a season was in 2003-04, when they were 11-12 in Jim O’Brien’s final season as coach. That team finished 14-16, lost in the first round of the Big Ten tournament and did not participate in the postseason.
For the first time since a win against Rutgers on Dec. 8, freshman Brice Sensabaugh didn’t finish as Ohio State’s leading scorer. The forward came off the bench and finished with 14 points, ending a streak of 12 straight games as Ohio State’s leading scorer, the longest such streak for a freshman in program history. He fouled out with 32.8 seconds left after going 4 for 14 from the floor.
He was supplanted by classmate Bruce Thornton, who had a career-high 22 points in his most impactful offensive game of the year. His 10 made field goals and 13 shots were also career-high numbers.
“I know I was going through a slump, really not making shots, but I kept trusting what I do, kept putting in my work and my teammates found me open,” Thornton said. “When you’ve got teammates like that that gets you open, you’re able to knock down shots, I’m really thankful.”
None of it was enough to overcome the play of Michigan’s 7-foot-1 center Hunter Dickinson, who scored a game-high 26 points and gave the Wolverines some breathing room in the early moments of the second half by scoring six straight points on Ohio State freshman center Felix Okpara.
“He was able to score some over us,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “I didn’t think we were able to bottle him up. He’s a really talented kid. Great touch, and he can move well.”
As has often been the case during the last month-plus, Ohio State quickly fell behind. Dug McDaniel swished a 3-pointer on the first possession of the game, and when Dickinson tipped in a Terrance Williams II miss with 16:43 left in the half it gave the Wolverines a 10-4 lead. The Buckeyes pulled within one when Sensabaugh split two free throws with 13:38 left at 12-11 and were within 17-14 on a Gene Brown III corner 3-pointer with 11:25 remaining, but Michigan extended its lead to a game-high 11 points on Jett Howard’s 3-pointer with 6:01 left.
Trailing 34-23, Ohio State called timeout. This time, it stemmed the momentum and Thornton was able to get going. His 3-pointer out of the timeout and basket on the next possession constituted a personal run of seven straight points for the freshman, and those five points started an 8-0 run that got Ohio State within 34-31 when Zed Key hit a mid-range jumper with 4:19 remaining.
It got the Buckeyes closer, but they couldn’t get over the hump. Trailing 36-33 and with a chance to tie the game, Justice Sueing misfired on a layup from the right block. And after Sueing hit his first 3-pointer of the night and only his third in the past eight games to pull Ohio State within 41-36, the Buckeyes forced a McDaniel miss and had one final chance to cut into the deficit.
Instead, Sueing wound up with the ball along the right wing, ran out of time, tried to draw contact on a 3-point attempt and found none – either from…