In a tough early-season road test, Ohio State rode its most experienced player and its most explosive newcomer to a convincing victory.
Behind impressive performances from fifth-year senior David Lighty and freshman Jared Sullinger, the No. 4 Buckeyes turned a three-point halftime deficit into a 93-75 victory at No. 9 Florida.
Lighty and Sullinger each put up 26 points, while Sullinger added 10 rebounds to open his career with his second consecutive double-double.
During Lighty’s freshman season, an OSU class boasting four impressive freshman brought their third-ranked team to face the fifth-ranked Gators on their home court. Two days before Christmas, the Buckeyes limped home after absorbing an 86-60 loss. Those teams would go on to rematch in the national title game, which the Gators also won.
“The big thing we talked about was we kept our composure,” OSU head coach Thad Matta told the Ohio State Basketball Radio Network. “To bring a young team down here and see what (they) were able to do … I’m very pleased, but it’s still early.”
This year’s OSU team boasts six freshmen, none of which played better than Sullinger. Once the Buckeyes broke down Florida’s full-court pressure, the big man found himself wide open down low for each baskets. When the Gators defended OSU in the half court, Sullinger would draw a double team and find his teammates.
“That’s what he brings to the table: his demeanor and his understanding,” Matta said of Sullinger.
Lighty, meanwhile, slashed his way to the basket at will. He went 9 for 11 from the floor and hit on 6 of 7 free throws, while Sullinger scored all 26 of his points on field goals.
The Buckeyes (2-0) took the lead for good on the 17th lead change of the game. Trailing 57-56, senior guard Jon Diebler drilled a three-pointer with 12:11 remaining in the contest. As he ran back down the court, a grinning Diebler held three fingers on his right hand aloft as he prepared to play defense.
Sullinger then scored after OSU broke Florida’s press to extend the lead to three points, and after Diebler took a charge at the other end the freshman helped start a sequence that led to a running baseline jumper by junior guard William Buford. Catching the ball on the right block, Sullinger drew a double team and kicked the ball to the top of the circle. Two quick passes later, Buford found open space along the left side for the basket.
Diebler’s trey started what would be a 16-6 run capped by a Lighty trey that made it 72-63 with 8:38 left. The Gators would get no closer than seven points the rest of the way.
“As I drew on the board, we’re 2-0,” Matta said. “You’re going to play 40 of them – hopefully. We’ve got to look at this and see the things we’ve got to get better at. There’s two ways you can go after a win.”
The win was OSU’s first true road victory against a top-10 team since an 84-62 victory against No. 3 Wake Forest on Dec. 9, 1961.
The Gators took a 41-38 lead into the half thanks to their advantage on the glass. Florida held an 18-8 rebounding advantage, with half of OSU’s rebounds coming during the final 1:30 of action.
The Buckeyes opened up a 12-7 lead at the 15:01 mark thanks to an impressive three-point play from Lighty. The free throw was one of five attempts for the senior in the first half, all of which were good.
The advantage would not last long, however. The Gators regained the lead with an 8-2 run to pull ahead 15-14 with 11:41 remaining on a put-back by Erving Walker, who had six first-half points. Lighty put the Buckeyes back on top 18-17 with two free throws at the 10:17 mark after a hard foul given by Vernon Macklin that knocked out a contact lens, but the Gators quickly seized command.
By controlling the glass and getting into the paint, Florida was able to open up its biggest lead of the half at 25-18 with an 8-0 run during which the home scored on four straight possessions. Freshman guard Aaron Craft momentarily stopped the bleeding with a three-pointer at the 8:45 mark and OSU pulled to within two points thanks to a personal 4-0 run by junior guard William Buford to make it 27-25, but OSU would get no closer for the rest of the half.
The home team increased its lead to seven points on two more occasions but OSU closed the half on a 6-2 run to set the score. In doing so, the Buckeyes were able to find some success on the glass. Of OSU’s eight first-half rebounds, four came during the final 1:30.
Three OSU starters picked up two first-half fouls: Lighty, Buford and Dallas Lauderdale. Matta re-inserted Lighty into the first half after thinking back to last year’s loss to Tennessee that bounced the Buckeyes from the NCAA Tournament.
“We were in a little bit of foul trouble,” the coach said. “What went through my mind was Tennessee when we sat him the last 12 minutes of the first half. Dave’s been here for five years now. He’s the only guy on the floor tonight who was here last time. I was very, very pleased with how he played.”
The Buckeyes finished with 22 assists against eight turnovers.
Florida was led by guard Kenny Boynton, who had 21 points thanks to a 5-for-8 performance from behind the three-point arc.
The game was part of the College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon on ESPN.