Like nearly a dozen coaches before him, UNC Asheville head coach Eddie Biedenbach had a choice to make regarding how to guard Jared Sullinger.
Also like those previous coaches, Biedenbach’s decision proved to be the wrong one. With the Ohio State freshman drawing a double-team every time he touched the ball in the paint, Sullinger instead found his teammates on the perimeter with the ball.
The result was a career night for fifth-year senior David Lighty and a big night for the team’s guards as the No. 2 Buckeyes defeated the Bulldogs, 96-49.
“I was open,” Lighty said. “I was knocking them down. I’m not sure what they started in but I was wide open. I just started feeling good.”
Sullinger, the Big Ten’s freshman of the week five of a possible six times this season, already holds the top two scoring nights by a freshman in school history. Those performances – 40 points against IUPUI on Dec. 9 and 30 nine nights later against South Carolina – came with teams choosing to shut down OSU’s perimeter game.
The Bulldogs (5-6) opted to take Sullinger out of the game, and Lighty was only too happy to step into the void. The Cleveland native took his team’s first five shots from the floor, connecting on four of them and propelling the Buckeyes (11-0) to an 11-2 lead.
OSU head coach Thad Matta said they expected the Bulldogs to focus on Sullinger. Biedenbach said it was a case of picking his poison but added that if he could do it again he would make a different decision.
“We thought that Sullinger 30 and 40 in his last (few) games, we didn’t want that to happen,” the coach said. “I felt Lighty was their best player. We elected to try to point him in our zone. What we did is we turned him loose to show that he’s one of the best players around.”
The coach also described his defensive plan in the early going as being a gimmick offense.
“They’re that good,” he said. “You can’t just go out there and play them straight up when you’re UNC Asheville and expect to win the game.”
Asked if he had ever opened a game so hot, Lighty said, “Probably not since high school. That was ages ago. Maybe in spurts during a half, but never really to start off a game. That was probably the first time.”
When he was given his first breather of the contest at the 12:29 mark, OSU held a 23-10 lead and Lighty had 13 points after connecting on three three-pointers. By the break, the senior had five triples and 23 points – both career-high totals for a half.
Lighty would finish with 29 points on 11 of 16 shooting that included a 7-for-10 effort from beyond the arc. His final total was one shy of a career-high.
The senior had one chance to break his personal record, but his final shot attempt of the night from the right wing found only air. His seven three-pointers tied for the fifth-best single-game mark in program history.
He had plenty of help, however. When Sullinger passed out of a double team and found classmate Deshaun Thomas for a dunk at the 8:39 mark, the Buckeyes were 14 of 21 (66.7 percent) from the floor and led 35-14. They also hit on six of their first nine three pointers, good for the same percentage.
After missing on five consecutive shots, OSU then went 6 for 8 to close the half and double up its opponent by a 48-24 margin. By then, the only question was whether or not Lighty would reach his career high of 30 points set Dec. 22, 2009 against Cleveland State.
Lighty is just the latest Buckeye to have a big night. In addition to Sullinger’s big games, senior guard Jon Diebler had a career-high 29 points Dec. 15 against Florida Gulf Coast.
“That’s how our season has been going so far,” Lighty said. “There’s not one person you can key on. It’s the first time. Usually they try to take the guards away and Jared hits 40. It was the opposite this time. That’s how our team can be that we have so many dynamics.”
Sullinger finished with a career-high and team-leading five assists including helpers on Lighty’s first two treys. He also added a game-high 16 rebounds and nine points.
“Jared is smart,” Matta said. “We told him going in you should be able to close your eyes and find guys and he did.”
Junior guard William Buford had 14 points on 6 of 12 shooting and Thomas added 13.
Asheville’s D.J. Cunningham, a native Ohioan who hails from Waterford, had a personal cheering section of about a dozen fans clad in his alma mater’s green. The sophomore center finished with 13 points and six rebounds. He was also whistled for a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct that resulted in a pair of free throws by Diebler.
Guard J.P. Primm led the Bulldogs with 15 points.
Up next is a quick turnaround for the Buckeyes, who host Oakland on Thursday night.
“I know our guys have a tremendous respect for Oakland and what they’ve been able to do so far this season,” Matta said. “Antennas are up.”