CLEVELAND — The Ohio State men’s basketball team has two slow starts and two dominating finishes in as many NCAA Tournament games this season.
After falling behind to George Mason, 11-2, in the first 3:38 of the game, the Buckeyes came roaring back to defeat the Patriots, 98-66, on Sunday at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. OSU will advance to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season.
The fast start by GMU was triggered by three offensive rebounds and four Buckeye turnovers, three by Naismith Award finalist, OSU freshman forward Jared Sullinger. The Buckeyes responded to the nine-point deficit after a media timeout with a 10-0 scoring run that included two 3-pointers from fifth-year senior forward David Lighty.
“I don’t want them to ever play scared, and that was the message at the first timeout,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “We didn’t come up here to play like this.”
The Patriots regained the lead, 14-12, with just less than 14 minutes remaining in the first half. That was their final lead of the game.
The Buckeyes closed the first half on a 50-15 scoring run to double up GMU, 52-26, at halftime. OSU continued its hot shooting in the second half, finishing the game 36-for-59 from the field, including a blistering 16-of-26 from three.
Lighty, a Cleveland native, led the way for the Buckeyes in his last game in his home state with a game-high 25 points after scoring just eight in the team’s first tournament game against Texas-San Antonio. The senior was 7-for-7 from three, which tied his career high for made 3-pointers in a game and set an OSU record for most made 3-pointers without a miss.
“My teammates did a good job of finding me,” Lighty said. “We have so many weapons that the defense pretty much has to pick their poison. … I think I did a good job of getting my feet set and following through.”
The abundance of weapons for the Buckeyes meant Lighty was not the Patriots’ first priority defensively.
“First was Sullinger — we began with how we’re going to defend in the post. Second was Diebler,” GMU coach Jim Larranaga said. “Then it was let’s pray that Buford and Lighty don’t go off.”
The Buckeyes also received a record day from freshman point guard Aaron Craft. OSU’s sixth man had a team single-game record 15 assists, to go along with just two turnovers.
“Us sharing the ball, especially with Craft having 15 assists,” Lighty said, “it’s unbelievable.”
Craft and Lighty were hardly the only Buckeyes to contribute. Sullinger finished the evening with 18 points and nine rebounds, while junior guard William Buford added 18 points of his own. Not to be left out, senior guard Jon Diebler also scored in double figures, finishing with 13.
The large second-half lead allowed Matta to empty his bench early, as Sullinger, Buford and Lighty sat for much of the final minutes.
The extended minutes for the reserves allowed all 10 Buckeyes who entered the game to score. Senior walk-on guard Eddie Days entered the game with 2:49 remaining and notched his first career point on a free throw with 1:17 to play.
“To be here in Cleveland, to get his first college point,” Matta said, “I’m elated for him.”
The Buckeyes held the Patriots to seven points below their season average, on 44 percent shooting. OSU also forced 17 turnovers.
“We were kind of expecting that we’d be able to score the ball better than we did,” Larranaga said, “but their defense was very, very good.”
Despite the dominating performance, the Buckeyes said they feel their best basketball could be ahead of them.
“We can play better. We’ve got another game on Friday with Kentucky, (and) we are focusing on that,” Sullinger said. “We’re trying to take the momentum from this game and carry on to the next.”
The Buckeyes will proceed to the Sweet 16 to play the Wildcats on Friday in Newark, N.J., for an opportunity to advance to the Elite Eight.