Ohio State is headed to the Big Apple.
Thanks to Jamar Butler and Kosta Koufos, the Buckeyes (2-0) used a potent inside-out game to hold off a scrappy Columbia (1-1) team, 68-54, in the second round of the preseason NIT tournament.
It took a challenge from OSU head coach Thad Matta to help the Buckeyes put the game away, though.
Holding a 36-35 lead early in the second half, Matta tasked his senior captain with making a play, be it shooting the ball or helping someone else make a play on offense.
He responded by nailing two three-pointers on the next three possessions, helping spark a 12-0 run that made it 48-35 with 12:47 left.
“Coach looked at me and told me to make a play,” Butler said. “They sat back in the zone and that was the only way I could make a play, was step up and hit a big shot. My teammates set me up in a good position and I knocked them down.”
Koufos finished the game with a game-high 19 points on 8 of 12 shooting. When the Columbia defense focused inward on Koufos, Butler was there to hit from outside, going 4 of 11 from beyond the arc and finishing with 18 points.
Together, they helped to overwhelm the Columbia defense.
Columbia head coach Joe Jones was impressed with Koufos’ performance.
“The big fella played great,” he said. “He’s an excellent player. He’s so skilled and so big and could just put that ball in the basket and make it look easy.”
The offense was aided by sophomore swingman David Lighty, who posted impressive offensive numbers for the second consecutive evening. As a freshman, the Cleveland native had established a career-high by scoring 11 points in two separate games. Against Wisconsin-Green Bay one night prior, he set a career high with 21 points. Against the Lions, he finished with 13 points on 6 of 11 shooting and provided an offensive spark for the Buckeyes.
Butler said Lighty makes the team work.
“Last year as a freshman he was the defensive stopper,” Butler said. “With the team that we have, he has to step in and play an offensive role, too. I think Dave makes this team with his energy and what he brings into practice every day. You know you’re going to get everything from David Lighty.”
A three-pointer at the buzzer by sophomore guard Patrick Foley spoiled what would have been a 14-0 OSU run to close the first half. Columbia grabbed a 23-19 lead with 6:56 remaining thanks to a trey by junior forward Joseph Bova – the team’s third consecutive three-pointer – but OSU pulled even on back-to-back buckets by Lighty and Koufos.
From there, Butler had seven of the 12 points on the run on a deep trey, a jumper just inside the three-point line and two foul shots.
“He’s an excellent player,” Jones said. “He’s great off ball screens. The things they run are excellent for him. He doesn’t rush and he’s an excellent player.”
At the first media timeout of the game the Buckeyes had a 9-2 lead and looked to be thoroughly in command, but the Lions took advantage of an inconsistent offensive performance from OSU and took the lead on a 10-0 run aided by back-to-back three-pointers that were set up by turnovers by freshman Jon Diebler.
Diebler would finish 1 for 5 from the field with three points, three fouls and three turnovers in 20 minutes of action.
Butler said he will give the freshman some simple advice.
“He has to keep shooting,” Butler said. “It’ll come. Players have off games. It’ll come. He’s going to have games where I’m pretty sure he’s going to have six, seven threes in a night.”
The Buckeyes have started Diebler and Koufos in all four games thus far – two exhibition and two regular-season – and figure to have to start two freshmen this season. However, freshman Evan Turner came in for Diebler and contributed six points on 2 of 3 shooting, adding three assists and no turnovers in 24 minutes.
Matta held off on saying Turner could supplant Diebler as the team’s fifth starter just yet, citing his desire to have firepower coming off the bench to help demoralize opposing teams.
With the victory, the Buckeyes will advance to play Syracuse in the semifinal round of the tournament at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 21.
Matta expressed some slight concern over how his young team would respond to the first road game of the season.
“These guys, I don’t know if they even know how to operate a key to get into a hotel room,” Matta said. “We may have to start there with this team of, ‘This is how you get in the room, this is how you operate an elevator.’ I’m pretty nervous about that.
“I’m serious. You guys don’t understand.”