Just how important was sophomore Deshaun Thomas to Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament-opening 78-59 win against Loyola (Md.) in Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center?
All-American center Jared Sullinger didn’t mince words when asked if the second-seeded Buckeyes could have won without Thomas’ 31 points and 12 rebounds.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I mean, Deshaun was excellent on the boards and also scoring the basketball. He pretty much carried this team.”
The scoring output was a career high for the Fort Wayne, Ind., native, who made exactly half of Ohio State’s 26 made field goals. Thomas led Ohio State with 14 points in the first half and at one point in the second half had 13 of the team’s points in a row.
“I was just trying to get in the right spots at the right time, run a play, run with pace like coach always tells us,” Thomas said. “Then I was just knocking ‘em down. I was just feeling it a bit.”
Sullinger added 12 points and 11 rebounds for his 15th double-double of the season, while senior William Buford had 17 points and Lenzelle Smith Jr. grabbed eight rebounds.
But while that sounds like a solid team effort, the Buckeyes were less than pleased with the 19-point win against the 15th-seeded Greyhounds, champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
“Well, obviously this tournament is about advancing, and that’s what we did tonight,” head coach Thad Matta said. “I don’t think we played at the level we need to. Our guys know that.”
Reasons for the struggles – including 18 turnovers, 34.3 percent shooting in the first half and only 11 assists on 26 buckets – ranged from the gritty play of the Greyhounds to, as Sullinger called it, “NCAA jitters.”
However, there was little debating the fact OSU felt it needs to play better when it meets seventh-seeded Gonzaga, big winners Thursday afternoon over West Virginia, on Saturday afternoon.
“You can’t half-step against anybody,” Buford said. “If you’re in the tournament, you’re in here for a reason. We took this team lightly today, but we still came out with the win. We have a lot of things we have to look at on film.”
Erik Etherly, the MVP of the MAAC tournament for Loyola, led the Greyhounds with 19 points and seven rebounds in the team’s first NCAA tournament game in 18 years. Dylon Cormier added 14 points but guard Robert Olson made just 1 of 11 shots.
Still, the Greyhounds fought to the end despite committing 14 fouls in the first half and 24 in the game.
“I thought we played really hard, which is what we do at Loyola University,” head coach Jimmy Patsos said. “I’m proud of my kids for playing. To play Ohio State, one of the best teams in the country, you’re not going to win the game without having everything go right. We didn’t have everything go right.”
The Greyhounds (24-9) actually jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the early going behind a big dunk by Etherly and a three by Cormier before Ohio State’s athleticism slowly drained the life out of Loyola. Sullinger was hard to handle early as he scored OSU’s first six points – including a trey from the left wing – before back-to-back buckets by Aaron Craft and Smith made OSU’s lead 12-7.
The Buckeye advantage stayed between six and nine for more exactly five minutes until Sullinger drove the lane and laid it in to make it 31-20, Buckeyes.
The lead got as high as 15 at two points before Ohio State finished the first half up 42-31 behind 14 points from Thomas and 12 more from Sullinger; each had six rebounds as well. The Buckeyes also took advantage of the Loyola fouls to shoot 15 of 18 from the charity stripe despite early shooting woes. The Greyhounds were led by Etherly’s 10 points and five boards.
The second half was in many ways a microcosm of the first, as the lead stayed in the teens for the first 14 minutes and change until Thomas’ bucket with 5:35 left gave him his career-high point total and made the score 70-50.
Ohio State was finally able to pull away behind a 60.9-percent shooting second-half, but the Greyhounds did cut the OSU lead to 11 at 70-59 with 2:18 left, prompting Matta to insert his starters back into the game for the dying minutes.