Buckeyes Only Getting Better as Competition Ramps Up
By Brandon Castel
CLEVELAND — With an 11-2 lead and Jared Sullinger already having picked up his first foul, George Mason was feeling good in the opening minutes of Sunday’s game against Ohio State.
They had outplayed the No. 1 team in the NCAA Tournament at both ends of the floor and were thinking upset as they began to celebrate far too early. All that did was awaken a sleeping giant that momentarily dozed off.
“I think it was just we really need to buckle down on defense,” senior Jon Diebler said.
“Coach told us in the huddle after we were down 11-2 and then I think Dave went on a run himself, he told us, ‘Alright, you didn’t have it, but you came back and now we just have to pick it up from here.”
Even Thad Matta could not have imagined what was coming next. With David Lighty draining shots from behind the arc, the Buckeyes quickly ripped off a 10-0 over the next 1:12 to take a 12-11 lead at the 14:55 mark of the first half.
The Patriots actually kept it close for the next seven minutes. The Buckeyes led on only 26-22 at the 8:37 mark before they went on another tear. This time they ripped off seven straight points as part of a 23-2 run that also included a stretch of 16-straight points.
After leading by nine early, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga suddenly found his team facing their largest halftime deficit of the season at 52-26.
“You can play well for a half, but to have that kind of separation in the NCAA Tournament, kind of surprising, to me,” Larranaga said.
“I thought we'd be able to score the ball more. I didn't know if we could stop them, because they have so many different weapons. But I thought we would score more. And when they held us to 26 points in the first half and they had 52, like, wow, very, very impressive.”
The Buckeyes were rolling in every phase of the game. They shot 63 percent from the floor in the first half, and 75 percent from behind the arc, with Lighty going a perfect 5-for-5 from long distance. Jared Sullinger quietly had 13 points and seven rebounds in the first half and Ohio State assisted on 12 of their 19 made baskets.
“I mean, if you've got four players that's scoring 18 and above and they're able to move the ball that well to get open shots, I mean, it's just very hard to guard,” said George Mason guard Cam Long.
“You've got great shooters outside and you've also got power post men sitting in the block. So when you're trying to shut down one thing, they've got other things that open up. And if you try to shut down the block, they've got the 3s that open up. So it's definitely a hard thing to guard.”
That has been the problem all year for teams trying to defend Ohio State. With the addition of Sullinger on the block and evolution of Diebler and William Buford as dead-eye shoots on the perimeter, there is still no blueprint for defending the Buckeyes after 36 games.
Teams have tried just about everything to slow them down. They have used zone defense and man defense; they’ve double-teamed Sullinger in the paint and shadowed Diebler on the perimeter. They’ve tried single-covering Sullinger in order to take away the three point shot, but nothing seems to work.
“You can try to take away Sullinger. Double-team him. Front him, getting a lot of help from the back side,” Larranaga said.
“But the moment you do that, what you do is create other opportunities for somebody else on the team.”
On Friday that was William Buford. Sunday it was David Lighty. With George Mason keyed in on stopping Sullinger and Diebler, Lighty torched them from the most unlikely place, behind the arc. Known as a slasher and dunker, Lighty was just flicking the ball into the basket from 20 feet away.
He made all five of his threes in the first half and both of his attempts in the second half as the Buckeyes pulled away for a 98-66 win.
“When they got guys that's just hitting on all cylinders, all night long, and they're sharing the ball and they're just going out there and just having fun, it's kind of tough for the opponent to stop,” George Mason forward Ryan Pearson said.
“That's what they did all night long. They just made shots. And even when we tried to cut the lead and come out, they just came right back at us, just firing on all cylinders. They're a great program, they're a tough team to beat, and I think they're going to go real far in this tournament.”
After two games in the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes might be playing their best ball of the season. They showed glimpses of it earlier in the season, when they waxed then-No. 12 Purdue 87-64 in Columbus.
They also hammered No. 10 Wisconsin 93-65 on the final day of the regular season, but this is tournament play. This is the time of year where teams like George Mason are supposed to push teams like Ohio State to the brink of an upset. This is the time of year where the Butlers of the world beat the Pittsburgh’s and schools called Virginia Commonwealth can run the Boilermakers out of the gym.
Yet this Ohio State team seems impervious to the carnage going on around them. They beat their first two opponents in the tournament by an average of 30.5 points per game. They are shooting 58.6 percent from the floor and 56 percent from behind the arc, and they are sharing the basketball better than any team in the country. They have assisted on 49 of their 65 field goals in the tournament and have only turned the ball over 22 times.
“If they play like they did today, it makes them a tough out,” Larranaga said.
“But you don't play the same way every day. And the way people defend and the way people attack are different, too. Every game is different. Every opponent is different. They've beaten us and San Antonio. In the next round they'll probably play a team with a little bit more size and a better matchup physicality-wise.”
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