Wave after wave of Cincinnati attacks flooded the Buckeyes after two runs captured a 52-43 second-half lead.
No. 18 Ohio State (1-0) weathered the surges and overcame a porous first-half shooting performance to scratch out a 64-56 season-opening win against Cincinnati (0-1) Wednesday at the Schottenstein Center.
“Proud of this first win. Gotta find a way, obviously, to grow and be a lot better,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “I’m sure it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing to people, but I don’t really care.”
Junior forward Kyle Young took home his first career double-double and led Ohio State with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
“Kyle’s got one thing on his mind when he plays,” Holtmann said. “And that is Ohio State winning. That’s the only thing that matters to him. That’s true of all of our guys, but I think you see particularly in a game against an in-state rival that means something to him.”
His efforts helped keep Ohio State alive in the first half, as he scored 10 of the team’s 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds.
Junior forward Kaleb Wesson, this past season’s leading scorer, finished with just eight points, but hit two 3s as part of Ohio State’s lead-taking run in the second half, and drew multiple charges from Cincinnati offensive players.
Trailing 53-45 late, Cincinnati cobbled together a 6-0 run to slice the lead to 53-51.
Ohio State sophomore guard Duane Washington drew a foul on the other end and hit two free throws.
Cincinnati junior center Chris Vogt dunked over Young in response, as the Ohio State player lay on the ground.
Washington dumped off to freshman forward E.J. Liddell on his way back down the floor, the newcomer knocking in his first collegiate field goal to place the lead back at 57-53.
After trading scores, with the game back to 60-56, redshirt junior guard C.J. Walker hit four straight free throws to close out the victory.
“That was a good old-fashioned rock fight right there,” Holtmann said. “Most physical opening game I’ve ever been apart of.”
Ohio State looked like a different team to open the second half after scoring 19 in the first.
Kaleb Wesson found his stroke from outside, knocking down a 3 while Walker scored his first four points as a Buckeye. They both contributed to an 11-point stretch in the first 3:05 of the second period, giving Ohio State its second lead of the game at 30-29.
Over three minutes of scoreless basketball passed before Kaleb Wesson stepped out again to knock down a wide-open catch-and-shoot triple, then flew to the other end of the court to draw a charge. The Buckeyes led 33-29 with under 13 minutes to play.
Holtmann said scheme changes assisted the Buckeyes exiting the locker room, including the use of high-ball screens utilizing Wesson that took advantage of the forward’s perimeter shooting and decision-making abilities.
“We really tried to simplify things at halftime,” Holtmann said. “I just didn’t think we were putting them in good enough positions, our guys, in the first half offensively, because they were taking us out of everything we had wanted to run going into the game.”
All the scoreless stretches that had plagued the game to that point fell mute.
Both teams combined to rattle off 58 points the rest of the way, but the Buckeyes found themselves the winners of the sprint to score.
Neither squad separated by more than five points in the stretch run until freshman guard DJ Carton scored five straight to put Ohio State ahead 49-43.
Sophomore guard Luther Muhammad cashed in a 3 to give the Buckeyes their largest lead at 52-43, a lead it didn’t relinquish despite the Cincinnati efforts.
Kaleb Wesson said the turnaround was predicated on higher energy levels.
“It really wasn’t adjustment, [Holtmann] just preached effort,” Wesson said. “It’s gonna come down to a dog fight at the end of the game, last four minutes was gonna be tough.”
The finish appeared night-and-day from the Buckeyes’ start, because for 7:41 Wednesday, Ohio State couldn’t earn a single point against Cincinnati.
“It’s tough when you have a young team and you don’t score for seven minutes to open the game,” Holtmann said. “Everybody gets a little tighter, and I felt like that at the free throw line.”
It turned the ball over five times, started 0-for-7 from the field and 0-for-3 from the line.
With the top four returning scorers from the previous season all failing to make ball meet net, Ohio State needed a novel face to spark its offense.
The fresh ignition came from Young.
Young slammed home a fast-break alley pass from freshman guard D.J. Carton, stuck back a miss by senior forward Andre Wesson and repeated the action moments later to slice the Bearcats’ lead to 8-6.
He added a blocked shot on defense within the same sequence.
“Effort is a big thing,” Young said. “Coach tries to preach, ‘keep high energy,’ I’ve gotta be a guy in there. I was doing those types of things, getting extra rebounds, stuff like that.”
Still, Cincinnati’s defense stymied much of Ohio State’s other players. Subtracting Young, Ohio State finished 17 percent from the field in the first half and turned the ball over eight times.
While the Bearcats themselves shot just 29 percent, senior guard Jarron Cumberland, the preseason American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, cobbled together seven first-half points including a step-back midrange jumper that Cincinnati’s lead to 20-15. He finished tied for the Bearcats’ team lead with 13 points.
Junior guard Keith Williams equaled his scoring efforts, hitting a first-half 3 that further enlarged the lead to 25-17.
Soon after, Young pulled in a tall alley-oop pass from sophomore guard Luther Muhammad, gathered, and polished off his first half with 10 points. A foul on the other end allowed the Bearcats to end the opening 20 up 26-19, however.
Ohio State continues its season against UMass-Lowell at 4 p.m. Sunday in the Schottenstein Center.