PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – As the final days of Ohio State’s extra summer practices were winding down, coach Chris Holtmann made an observation to his assistants.
“Boy, Tanner (Holden)’s played well,” Holtmann.
Saturday was just one game, the first of a thousand steps as Holtmann put it. But in a 72-68 win against the Egyptian national team inside the Imperial Ballroom at the Atlantis resort, the Wright State transfer wing put up 15 points and was impactful on both ends of the court in what served as the unofficial debut for the 2022-23 Buckeyes. In the first of two games on this foreign exhibition trip, Ohio State prevailed against an organized and older Egypt team that relied on its physicality and experience to challenge the Buckeyes.
The Pharaohs pressured Ohio State’s guards full-court. They tried to force the ball inside and create mismatches. And unlike some other teams that the Buckeyes could have played, none of their players double as servers at the resort.
“It was a team that was organized that you could tell had been put together for a specific reason,” Holtmann said. “I think they had good size and they had some older bodies and certainly it’s not the most talented team we’re going to play all year. Their coach, Roy Rana, does a great job and they were organized and well-coached and had some guys who played high-level college basketball. It was extremely physical.”
Ohio State basketball insider: Stay in the know with texts from beat reporter Adam Jardy
Ohio State basketball: On Bahamas trip, Ohio State's Isaac Likekele, Sean McNeil taking leadership steps
Ohio State opened the scoring on a Brice Sensabaugh 3-pointer, led for the majority of the game including the final 15 minutes and liberally mixed and matched lineups in a game befitting the surroundings. Holtmann used a shooting drill at Friday’s practice to help determine his starting lineup and went with Holden, junior Zed Key, West Virginia transfer Sean McNeil and freshmen Bruce Thornton and Sensabaugh. Then, near the midpoint of the first quarter, all five players were subbed out for a new lineup, which might be Sunday's starting group.
It made for some choppy play and some long stretches without scoring. But in early August, Holtmann said the final result didn’t matter as much as how the Buckeyes got there and how they can apply those lessons going forward.
“Boy, we had a lot of young guys and our new guys out there,” Holtmann said. “Listen, our learning curve is significant this year. We’ve got to find ways to speed it up by the time November comes along and this is one way to do it.”
Sensabaugh tied Holden for the team lead with 15 points and took a team-high 14 shots, 10 of which were 3s.
Ohio State took the lead for good on an Isaac Likekele three-point play with about five minutes remaining in the third quarter. That made it 41-39, and Ohio State expanded it on a Key basket at the rim and a pair of free throws from freshman Roddy Gayle, who finished with 10 points.
The lead would stretch as high as 10 points at the midpoint of the fourth quarter after Ohio State scored on four straight possessions and six of seven. Sensabaugh’s imprints were all over the run: he started it with a jumper after grabbing his own miss, ran a fast break and fed Likekele for a layup and made it 61-51 when he hit a 3-pointer that resulted in an Egypt timeout.
The Pharaohs would respond, cutting it to 61-60, before Holden knocked down a 3 from the left corner to create some breathing room. Gayle put the exclamation point on the game with a thunderous dunk with 1:15 to play that pushed the lead to 68-65, and the Buckeyes would salt it away at the line from there.
“Momentum is so much a part of college basketball,” Holtmann said. “You’ve got to find a way when you lose it to get it back. We had a couple possessions late to get it back and that was good to see. This is literally the first step in a thousand steps of a season, but there was some real adversity in a game like this.”
The game wasn’t just a learning experience for the Buckeyes. During the pregame ceremonies, Egypt’s national anthem seemed done and the Pharoahs clapped and prepared to hear the American counterpart when, surprisingly, the music kept playing. A few more bars rang out before the music cut off and attention shifted to the Buckeyes. Then the American national anthem played only to have it cut off right before the final note, bringing more laughter and inducing members of the small crowd to yell out “brave” as the teams headed to their respective huddles.
The green seats throughout the ballroom slowly filled with Ohio State fans as the game progressed. Behind the scorers’ table, children of the coaching staff chanted things like “defense!” and yelled whenever Egypt attempted free throws. After the final whistle, fans on the other side of the court swarmed current Indiana Pacer and Bahamas native Buddy Hield, who was in the crowd.
Ohio State will now face Puerto Rico at 5 p.m. Sunday, but the preparation will again be light. Holtmann said the team’s video staff will show a brief edit of Saturday’s action but otherwise the Buckeyes are to enjoy the waterslides, beaches and pools at their disposal while on the trip.
“I don’t want this trip to resemble what a road trip would look like necessarily,” Holtmann said. “We’ll wait on that.”
Just like they’ll wait on drawing any meaningful conclusions from one exhibition game. As Holtmann put it, 999 steps still remain.
“One of the things as a coach you’re looking for is who responds when the lights come on and there were guys that we were just wondering about,” he said. “Some guys played better than others.”
Oregon product Ehab Amin had 16 points and Louisville product Anas Osama had 14 to lead the Pharaohs.
Get more Ohio State basketball news by listening to our podcasts
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Tanner Holden, Buckeyes beat Egypt in Bahama