The Versailles native poured in 29 points as the Ohio State blitzed No. 22 Iowa 90-70 on Tuesday night, a game that could resonate on Selection Sunday for multiple reasons.
The Buckeyes’ best win in Big Ten play came with three games left in the regular season and likely solidified their NCAA tournament bid.
The offensive breakout (against one of the weaker defensive teams in the league) was also the first indication in a while Ohio State (18-10, 8-9) could make some noise in March.
And if that happens, Ahrens could be one of the catalysts.
The all-time leading scorer in the Midwest Athletic Conference, who played sparingly until recently, provided energy and more importantly outside shooting for the Buckeyes against Iowa, making 6 of 10 three-pointers.
His breakout performance came three days after he scored nine points in his first college start, a 72-62 loss at Maryland.
“He’s been playing well,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey said. “He played well against us the last time. He played well on Saturday against Maryland. The guy is a shooter. He was open too much. Give him credit. He made six, that’s pretty impressive, but we were pressing a little bit and we were trapping so you’re a little bit susceptible to a guy being open.”
The 6-foot-5 Ahrens entered the night having scored 30 points in 13 Big Ten games, including a career-high nine against Maryland three days earlier when he made his first career start.
With the Buckeyes in their alternate gray throwback uniforms Tuesday night, he could have been mistaken for Chris Jent, a sharp shooter on the Jimmy Jackson teams that won back-to-back Big Ten championships in the early 1990s.
“I was really hot out there,” Ahrens said. “It felt good. My teammates were feeding me really well and when we run that four-out, one-in look with Kaleb (Wesson) inside, teams are always looking to double him. It really opens up the floor, open shots and open driving lanes and things like that so it was good.”
Ahrens made 38.8 percent of his 3-pointers last season at Versailles, but he had struggled to find the range to start his college career.
He was just 6 for 22 from beyond the arc prior to Saturday, but he has gone 9 for 15 since.
It’s a small sample size, of course, but that ability to stretch the defense could force teams to defend the Buckeyes differently the rest of the season.
“He’s a kid that has just really grown as the season has gone on,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “When you think about him even a month ago in the Michigan game, he’s different. He’s a different player. He still struggles in some areas defensively, we had to move him off some guys tonight, but the thing I love about Justin and I’ve said this before is he’s a confident kid but his focus has been on the team playing well and finding a way to help the team play well. He’s lost himself in that, and I think he’s been rewarded because his focus has bene that he’s continually gotten better.”
Holtmann pulled the reins in just in case anyone was expecting Ahrens to suddenly become his team’s go-to scorer, but he acknowledged the youngster has reached a point where he can be relied upon for a consistent contribution every game from here on out.
“He’s just got to keep working, keep his focus about the right things, keep playing with confidence,” Holtmann said. “He’s got to keep getting better. It’s a tremendous performance. I loved how he played and his contributions but listen it’s not realistic to expect a freshman to go out and make 60 percent of his 3s in every game so let’s pump the brakes on that a little bit. He’s just got to keep working.”
The Buckeyes return to action Saturday at No. 14 Purdue.
After playing at Northwestern on March 6, they close out the regular season back home against No. 19 Wisconsin on March 10.
Ohio State entered the game against Iowa 0-5 against ranked teams, and the Hawkeyes (21-7, 10-7) are the first ranked team and the first team above them in the standings to fall to the Buckeyes.
As was the case two weeks ago when his team suffered a potentially damaging loss at home to Illinois, Holtmann wanted to hold off on tournament talk.
“Obviously we understand there are three games left to be played that are all going to be extremely difficult, and I think we’re just trying to keep our focus on the task at hand and the day at hand,” the coach said. “If we continue to get better hopefully our body of work will speak for itself. Obviously this was a home win against a very good team that’s had a very good season. Unfortunately it’s not going to help us one bit Saturday when we play one of the best teams in our league on the road.”
His players, though, might be looking at it a little differently.
“We’re really just focused on punching a ticket to the tournament, and that’s really all that’s on my mind right now,” Ahrens said. "Really focused on that, focused on getting better day by day and we’re excited for it. So gotta keep working.”