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February 18, 2014

In the back pocket

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- So desperately, Marc Loving just needed to see that stupid little orange ball go through that stupid little hoop. It didn't matter how.

It could swish through the basket, bank off the backboard or dance around the rim before gently rolling in. It just needed to happen. It needed to happen soon.

During Ohio State's win against Illinois Saturday in Champaign, Ill., the freshman forward got his wish.

In a game where the Buckeyes offensively floundered in the first half and didn't get notable production from leading scorers junior forward LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr., Loving came off the bench for eight points and, perhaps most crucially, kindled a late surge that helped guide coach Thad Matta's team to its fourth win in five games.

In part thanks to Loving, Ohio State avoided what could've been a deflating loss to the reeling Fighting Illini. But he's had little to do with its most-recent success.

Since Jan. 23, the Toledo native has scored just three points on 0-of-11 shooting.

And for a kid who averaged 21.3 points during his senior season at Saint John Jesuit High School -- a place where he's also the all-time leading scorer -- Loving simply isn't used to slumps like that. He said he's never gone through one like it.

"It was the first," he said. "Some of it was mental. A lot of the game is mental."

One bad game against Illinois at home almost a month ago snowballed into five more insecure and unsettling outings.

"As he was struggling through that stretch he was struggling in practice making shots," Matta said.

So somewhere along the line, Loving decided that -- if only he could make one basket -- then maybe he could make another. Then another.

"I think every shot I shoot is gonna go in so just if I miss one I think oh the next one's gonna go. If I miss that one, I felt the next one's gonna go in," he said. "Eventually it was gonna go down."

Such a poised and optimistic outlook might be relatively special for a freshman. Coupled with Ohio State's struggles -- you know, the ones that looked like they might capsize its season back in January -- it's easy to think Loving's was perhaps a situation ripe for pessimism and discouragement. If the rest of his teammates struggled, how was he supposed to suddenly emerge from the wreckage?

Instead, Loving re-bloomed shortly after the likes of Ross and Smith Jr. found their footing after incessant reps shooting the ball during practice. That birthed confidence.

"I felt like I had a foundation to fall back on," Loving said.

And if he can sustain that level of production -- or at least some semblance of it -- it could help an Ohio State team without a real offensive identity.

"To have Marc come in and if it's scoring -- which we gladly welcome, I mean, open arms, bring it on, we'll take it -- I think that's something he can do for us," Matta said.

"To have that in our back pocket is probably a good thing."

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