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Buckeyes lean on Buford early in rout of UTSA

Andy Gottesman / Multimedia Editor

CLEVELAND — Though the Buckeyes left Texas-San Antonio’s coach saying, “Wow,” what many thought would be a cupcake matchup got off to a slow start for the overall No. 1-seeded team.

The Ohio State men’s basketball team (33-2) buried No. 16 seed UTSA, 75-46, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, but for the first seven minutes of the game, only one Buckeye put points on the board.

Junior guard William Buford matched UTSA (20-14) nearly shot for shot in the opening minutes, as the Roadrunners sank four of their first five shots, including one from beyond the arc.

The 6-foot-5 Buckeye began with 3-for-4 shooting, including 1-of-1 from deep, accounting for OSU’s first seven points.

“My teammates, they were giving me the ball and shots were open,” a soft-spoken Buford said following the game, “so I was just taking good shots and I was able to knock them down.”

Freshman forward Jared Sullinger was the first of Buford’s teammates to score. With the Buckeyes trailing, 9-7, Sullinger made a game-tying layup 6:57 in.

UTSA never regained the lead.

The homelike atmosphere at the Quicken Loans Arena, just two hours north of Columbus, provided the Buckeyes with ample support throughout the game. Of the more than 20,000 who attended Friday’s game — the largest crowd ever to attend a college basketball game in Ohio — a vast majority were Buckeye fans. Each of OSU’s baskets was met with a roaring applause, while the Roadrunners received some audible boos throughout the contest.

Freshman point guard Aaron Craft said the overwhelming crowd support made the team feel like it was playing at home in Columbus.

Though Buford’s energy was all that kept the Buckeyes’ heads above water early, coach Thad Matta said the rest of the team stayed focused to come out with the win. That collective discipline paid off, as the Buckeye defense did not allow UTSA to return to enjoying the 80 percent shooting it did in the beginning.

“We came out with a slow start,” Buford said, “but picked up our pace and clamped down on defense.”

OSU held UTSA to 10-for-22 shooting, including only 1-of-8 from 3-point territory, in the first half. The Buckeyes entered halftime with a comfortable 37-21 lead behind 15 points from Buford, who finished the game with a team-high 18 points.

“Will can do whatever he needs to do,” Craft said. “He’s definitely willing to take his shots, and he knocked them down.”

The Roadrunners’ shooting success only diminished as the game wore on, and the Buckeyes’ 16-point halftime lead inflated to as large as 38 in the second half.

OSU held UTSA to just 25.8 percent shooting in the second, at times more than doubling the Roadrunners’ score.

“We wanted to send a message out today,” Buford said, “and let people know we’re here to take care of business.”

UTSA coach Brooks Thompson heard that message loud and clear.

“Wow,” he said. “They’re good.”

Despite his team’s second-round thrashing, Matta said the Buckeyes don’t take anything for granted as they look toward their next matchup and a tougher road ahead in what many call the tournament’s most competitive region.

“Every step you take in the NCAA Tournament forward,” he said, “you’re going to play a better basketball team.”

The Buckeyes will move on to the tournament’s third round, in which they will face No. 8 seed George Mason (27-6) on Sunday. Minutes before the OSU-UTSA opening tip, the Patriots clawed back from a consistent second-half deficit to defeat No. 9 seed Villanova (21-12), 61-57.

OSU forward David Lighty, who contributed eight points in the Buckeyes’ victory, said George Mason is a team that’s good enough to make it to Houston.

“They’re no cupcake,” the fifth-year senior Buckeye said. “When you hear ‘George Mason,’ you hear about a team going to the Final Four.”

The Buckeyes and Patriots will tip off at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Quicken Loans Arena.

OSU has not won a national title since 1960, but Devin Gibson, who netted a game-high 24 points and was the only Roadrunner to post double-digit points Friday, said this could be its year.

“I think they play how a championship team plays inside out,” the senior point guard said. “They passed the ball around and just found the open man and made shots — what a championship team does.”

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