Ohio State’s biggest player took a big step forward Monday night.
The No. 13/15 Buckeyes remained unbeaten by dispatching visiting UNC Asheville by an 83-59 final thanks in large part to the play of B.J. Mullens, their 7-0 freshman center.
Coming off the bench one game removed from his first collegiate start, Mullens proved to be an impact player at both ends of the court. The central Ohio native finished with a career-high 19 points and three blocks while adding eight rebounds in the victory.
For the first time this season, he did it all for the Buckeyes (9-0).
“I think that he’s growing into it,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said. “I think he’s getting better. The thing is the consistency. They were a little bit undersized tonight but I thought he did a better job on his post-ups, I thought he did a better job on his finishes, he moved on penetration and was a little more active defensively today.”
It was a far cry from the performance he put forth two days prior as the Buckeyes hosted Iona. Against the Gaels, Mullens saw just 16 minutes of action and was benched for nearly the entire second half as head coach Thad Matta sent a message to both Mullens and frontcourt mate Dallas Lauderdale.
That message apparently came through loud and clear for Mullens, who also played a career-high 25 minutes.
“It’s fine,” Mullens said of coming off the bench this time out. “It’s just what coach thinks is best for the team, and if that’s what’s best that’s fine.”
An early OSU lead stretched to 15 points when a basket by Kyle Madsen – who earned his first career start – made it 27-12 in favor of the home team, but the Bulldogs would mount a comeback. Four missed shots and one turnover committed by the Buckeyes allowed Asheville to mount a 9-0 run, closing it to 27-21 with 4:09 remaining in the first half.
The lead would shrink to four after OSU got a pair of free throws and Asheville countered with a trey to make it 29-24, but an 8-0 run to close the half made it 37-24 Buckeyes.
From there, Asheville (4-8) simply had no chance against a faster, more athletic OSU team.
With his team playing its second game in a three-day span, Matta substituted liberally throughout the first half. Nine players saw at least three minutes of action in the first 20 minutes, and Matta was able to empty his bench in the final minutes.
“We had all kinds of lineups out there,” Matta said. “There’s certain things that we’re looking for with each lineup. I don’t know if there was one that really stood out in my mind. I thought that across the board guys gave pretty good effort.”
One game after both Lauderdale and Mullens both earned a start, neither of them cracked the starting lineup. With junior forward David Lighty out for several weeks with a fractured right foot, Matta instead started Madsen and freshman guard William Buford.
Although Madsen’s playing time was limited due to the play of Mullens, Buford shined in his first career start to the tune of a career-high 16 points and seven rebounds.
“I just thought that the coach thought I was ready and so did my teammates,” Buford said. “I was ready to go out and play myself. I always come out with the same mind set to go hard and help my teammates win. That’s where my mind set was today.”
Sophomore guard Evan Turner finished with 17 points and had four assists against jut one turnover – and it occurred on his final play of the evening when a long pass was deflected off Buford’s fingertips and Asheville was awarded possession.
For the game, the Buckeyes made more than half their shots – 33 of 64, good for 51.6 percent. OSU had 40 points in the paint compared to 20 by Asheville. Much of the game will end up on the end-of-the-year highlight film.
There was freshman guard Anthony Crater – all 6-1 of him – throwing down a dunk. There was Mullens converting an alley-oop dunk. There was junior walk-on Mark Titus coming up with a steal in the final minute of action.
It was a night that added up to a decisive win for the Buckeyes.
“This is a very good Ohio State team,” Asheville head coach Eddie Biedenbach said. “They should be able to move up to 12th after their win against us.”