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Men’s Basketball: ‘Like a dream come true’: Spencer earns scholarship for hard work, character as walk-on

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Ohio State junior forward Owen Spencer (44) was awarded a scholarship following Ohio State’s win Saturday over Iowa. Credit: Zachary Rilley | Photo Editor

Following the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s 93-77 win against Iowa Saturday, the Buckeyes gathered in the locker room like normal, but with a bit more joy as they had broken  their previous five-game losing streak.

This time, though, there was something a little different about their postgame locker room routine.

The coaches came in holding two hand-written letters: one for graduate guard Isaac Likekele and another for junior forward Owen Spencer.

Likekele opened his letter, which read, “We are so glad you are a Buckeye!” Then, Spencer opened his.

“You are now on scholarship at Ohio State University,” it read, as his teammates mobbed Spencer in celebration. From the 6 a.m. summer workouts, running at Ohio Stadium or lunging with 50-pound sandbags in hand, to now with the scout team work he puts in every day at practice, Spencer was rewarded for his hard work as a Buckeye.

“It was a lot of exhilaration, happiness,” Spencer said. “It was a really special moment for me, and I was really glad I got to experience that in that fashion with my whole team.”

Spencer’s journey to Columbus started as a kid in Cincinnati. He said he was “very familiar” with Ohio State basketball, even going to a few games growing up, as some of his friends were “die-hard” Buckeye fans.

A three-time letter winner at Turpin High School, he accepted a scholarship to The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, where he played his first two seasons of college basketball.

When The Citadel fired former head coach Duggar Baucom in March 2022, Spencer, like most of his teammates, entered the transfer portal. In his search for a new home, he wanted the same thing he had with the Bulldogs: to be surrounded by good people.

Spencer said the Division II schools that attempted to recruit him didn’t have the same appeal as when Ohio State assistant coach Mike Netti called him to give him an opportunity with the Buckeyes.

“I really wanted to be closer to home, and then obviously play for The Ohio State University,” Spencer said. “That’s like a dream come true.”

Spencer’s decision wasn’t without consequence, leaving behind a scholarship at The Citadel for a walk-on role with the Buckeyes.

That’s not to mention the cultural differences between a military school in South Carolina, Spencer said, where days are “structured from when you wake up to when you go to bed,” to now being “a normal college student.”

Spencer said he “always knew” his role moving forward would be to mirror each opposing team’s big man’s tendencies and skillsets, embracing the team’s core value of “being a great teammate” from the time he arrived in June.

“He’s 6-9, 220 pounds. He provides us a scout team center that can also play in a pinch if we need him,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “Great attitude, great kid.”

Spencer talks before each practice with assistant coach Jack Owens, who is in charge of the scout team, learning what plays he will run and how he can best replicate the opponent’s center. Spencer said his favorite to exemplify so far is Purdue junior center Zach Edey.

He also enjoys raising the level of competition in practice.

“I don’t see practice as, ‘Oh, it’s just another practice. Oh, I have to get through this,’” Spencer said. “I view it as, ‘OK, if I come ready to play and I push Zed [Key] and I push Felix [Okpara], that could be the difference in us winning a game or not.’ I feel like practice matters a lot to me.”

Spencer has appeared in just 12 minutes of game action this season, scoring his first points as a Buckeye against Charleston Southern Nov. 10. However, during every game, he stands up and cheers on his teammates from the bench.

Freshman guard Roddy Gayle Jr. — who said Spencer is “one of the funniest guys you’ll ever meet” — was happy to see him get rewarded for his hard work.

“His kind of character really sets a huge goal for our team,” Gayle said. “He works hard in the weight room and in practice every day, so to see him get that major accomplishment, you know, it meant the world to him. It meant the world to all of us as well.”

When Spencer made the jump from The Citadel to Ohio State, he said he appreciated his parents’ support despite the financial burden it caused. Now, seven months after he arrived on campus, that burden dissipated.

His parents, David and Sarah Spencer, were in attendance for the Buckeyes’ victory against the Hawkeyes, and after the game, he had a note to deliver to them.

“I didn’t tell them straight up, I just gave them the envelope, and my dad opened it and read it, and his eyes lit up. Then, my mom looked over his shoulder and read it, and she started tearing up and crying,” Spencer said. “It was just a really cool experience to share with all my support system at the game which was awesome.”

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