Monday afternoon, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta expressed some doubt that his young team was deserving of being ranked second in the nation. The following night, he watched his Buckeyes gut out a 58-44 road victory against Florida State as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Although OSU (6-0) never trailed in the contest, it was not a thing of beauty. The Seminoles (5-2) used some stifling defense to keep OSU from pulling away in the second half. Three players combined for 10 blocks, nine of which came in the second half, as the Buckeyes were held to 32.2 percent shooting for the contest and just 27.6 percent in the final stanza.
“When you go on the road and shoot 32 percent, it was about toughness (and) it was about rebounding,” head coach Thad Matta told the Ohio State Basketball Radio Network. “I give our guys a lot of credit. They answered the call. As I told them after the game, when we did what we were supposed to do defensively they really had a hard time scoring. Just a great team win.”
After taking an 11-point lead into the second half, the Buckeyes expanded it as high as 17 at 40-23 with 15:43 remaining before the Seminoles mounted a charge with a 7-0 run that cut the lead to 10.
After FSU cut it to 40-30 with 13:35 left, the home crowd could smell a charge coming but it was an unlikely player who stepped up for the Buckeyes. Freshman point guard Aaron Craft – pushed into extensive duty as junior starter William Buford battled foul trouble – swished a three-pointer from the left corner at the 12:50 mark to give his team some more breathing room.
Three players scored in double figures for the Buckeyes. Senior guard Jon Diebler had 12 points despite a 3-for-12 shooting night that included a 2-for-10 effort from three-point range while freshman Jared Sullinger and senior David Lighty added 11 and 10 points, respectively.
Before the game, Matta pointed to rebounding as one key factor that would determine a winner. OSU finished with a 42-33 advantage on the glass including a 17-7 advantage on the offensive end. As a result, OSU finished with 15 second-chance points compared to four from the Seminoles.
“It was rebounding,” Matta said of the primary matchup. “I thought the advantage we had a halftime I commended our guys (for it). There were a lot of misses in this game tonight. We wanted to crowd the floor defensively and make them make decisions.”
The Buckeyes went through much of the game without two of their key contributors. After picking up two first-half fouls, junior guard William Buford picked up his fourth foul with 8:35 remaining in the contest. Matta was unsuccessful in his attempts to quickly get him out of the game, and he fouled out 38 seconds later on OSU’s ensuing offensive possession when he pushed off on his defender.
“Will, we just talked about it I thought he had a focus today and a look in his eye I hadn’t seen a lot,” Matta said. “He was really ready to go. We were trying to get him out of the game. I thought the fall was on (Dallas Lauderdale). I still don’t know how it was on William.”
Meanwhile, freshman Deshaun Thomas did not see any second-half action after falling hard on his lower back in the closing minute of the first half. Buford finished with nine points on 4 of 12 shooting while Thomas had five rebounds and four points.
The Buckeyes wasted no time taking control of the game, racing out to a 7-0 lead on a three-pointer from Buford, a basket in the paint from Lauderdale and a drive by Lighty.
The Seminoles would cut it to a two-point margin at 10-8 with 12:56 remaining but OSU pushed it back to a six-point lead on baskets by Sullinger and Thomas. The visitors would increase the lead to 10 points at 20-10 with 7:30 remaining with eight of those points of the second-chance variety.
Although FSU would cut the lead down to five, OSU closed the half on an 8-2 run to set the score at 28-17. In all, six Buckeyes had at least three points in the first half with Lauderdale and Lighty each putting up six. For the half, the Seminoles shot 26.1 percent (6 for 23) from the field.
Lauderdale’s final two set the halftime margin and came in an unusual fashion.
With less than a minute to play, Thomas corralled a three-point miss by Diebler and drove the basket from the right block. Drawing contact as he leapt into the air, Thomas came down hard on his lower back/tailbone area. Rolling to his stomach, he laid there for a moment before being helped to the bench by trainers.
“He’s going to be fine,” Matta said. “I think it scared him more than anything. We had that rotation going (in the second half) and wanted to be sure to be careful.”
FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton was allowed to pick who could shoot the free throws in Thomas’ place. Not surprisingly, he chose Lauderdale, who entered the game a career 42.0 percent shooter from the charity stripe.
Stepping to the line, Lauderdale had the first shot roll around before it fell through. He swished the second one to set the score at 28-17.