At times, it was not a pretty game. Bodies littered the floor, some bumps and bruises were surely earned, and at one point Jared Sullinger ended up in the lap of a few fans taking in the game. But neither of these teams was concerned with aesthetics. The only goal for in-state opponents Ohio State and Cincinnati was the almighty “W”. I would use the word ‘fortunately’ here to describe the Buckeyes victory, but that would imply a degree of luck. That was decidedly not the case. Not much luck is needed in a game in which two of your players combine for 49 points.
The Buckeyes sophomore standout Jared Sullinger put in work to the tune of 23 points, 11 rebounds (5 of those offensive boards). He also was a constant at the free throw line hitting 9 of his 10 freebies. Deshaun Thomas, once the unsung X-factor for the team, had the games high score dropping 26, and pulling down 7 rebounds (4 offensive). Aaron Craft did not light up the scoreboard as he did against Gonzaga, but it did not matter. Once again, he did what was needed, filling out the box score the way Sully fills out basketball shorts. Craft had 11 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and 6 steals. He was everywhere. Not that anyone is surprised at this point. Rounding out the contributions from the starting five was Lenzelle Smith Jr. who had 15 points, capped by a cold-blooded 3 pointer in the closing moments of the game.
Every starter got involved early and often, save for William Buford. Buford had a rough shooting night going only 1-8 with 4 points. However, with all the talk of scoring, what really made the game the solid victory it was was defense. Asked after the game if he had to have a talk with Buford, Thad Matta said:
“William Buford played his best defense of his OSU career that 1st 20 minutes.”
The fact that Buford had a rough night was not the significant part of his game. His defense was. In addition, he showed great resolve and patience by limiting his shots as he struggled, often deferring to the hot hands of his teammates. That is the quiet senior leadership that Buckeye fans love about Buford, even while sometimes steaming over his lack of production at the offensive end. We all know and love his potential, though frustrating at points. But against Cincinnati, Buford showed a great deal of poise and a high basketball IQ.
The Buckeyes came out a bit flat, going down 5-0 but then quickly turned up the pressure and jumped past the Bearcats on a 13-2 run to make the score 13-7. The rest of the first half was very much the same. The Bearcats trying to claw their way back into the game with the Buckeyes continuing to get turnovers, force bad shots, and convert them into points at the other end. This quick pace led to the Buckeyes 12 point lead at the half, with Ohio State up 37-25.
One play in the first half stood out to me. After a Shannon Scott driving layup that was missed/blocked, the defender grabbed the rebound and turned to look for an outlet. As a freshman, you expect mistakes by Shannon Scott. But how they respond after the mistakes is what speaks volumes. Instead of giving up and running back down court to defend (or sulking/complaining about a no-call, like some young players might) Scott swiped at the ball and fought to regain possession giving the Buckeyes another opportunity to score. At that point in particular, I felt like the Buckeyes really wanted this game and were going to fight tooth and nail to get the win.
The early going of the second half, however, had a bit less of a sunny disposition. They say that basketball (especially college ball) is a game of runs. Cincinnati came out of the break swinging, er… shooting. They quickly got right back into the game with a 16-4 run that tied the game at 41. The Buckeyes were not getting back on defense and were standing around flat-footed when they didn’t have the ball. The Bearcats put a few more points on the board, and the teams traded baskets until a Sullinger steal led to Aaron Craft hitting a jumper to take a 53-52 lead at the 10:25 mark.
The Bearcats never led again.
Closing out games is something that the Buckeyes had trouble with at times during this season. Tonight, though, Lenzelle Smith Jr.’s dagger with 15 seconds left on the clock put the Buckeyes up 17 and gave the Buckeyes their biggest lead of the game, 81-64. A jumper by Dion Dixon as time expired resulted in the final. But it was moot. The Buckeyes closed out a big game against a talented opponent that was hungry to assert itself in the arena of Ohio basketball. But defense and two hot hands made the game more of a runaway than Cincytuckians would have preferred.
Sullinger in particular held Cincy’s big man Yancy Gates to a mere 7 points. Preview talk was of how Sullinger would handle the big mans toughness. It should have been of how Yancy would handle Sully, clearly the better big man and better all around talent.
For the Bearcats, Cashmere Wright led the way with 18 points, with Sean Kilpatrick following that up with a 15 point performance. All for naught though, as the Buckeyes bottled up everyone else with stellar defense and sharp shooting.
As a result, the Buckeyes still rule the state of Ohio. With the battle of Ohio in the rear-view mirror, little brother is just going to have to be content with staying at home because the Buckeyes continue their drive to the Final Four on Saturday around 7pm against Syracuse. Cuse knocked off a very sharp shooting Wisconsin team by 1 point, 64-63 in the earlier match in Boston.
Look for the preview of that game on Saturday.
And as always: