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November 12, 2013

Buckeyes stave off Ohio

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After a 19-year armistice, Ohio State flexed its muscles against in-state rival Ohio before having to escape it.

While they built as much as much as a 17-point lead in the first half, the No. 10-ranked Buckeyes tripped over themselves in the second half before surviving a furious rally from a Bobcats squad featuring four players from the central Ohio metropolitan area.

After placing the ball in the hands of senior point guard Aaron Craft during the game's final five minutes, Thad Matta's crew ultimately pulled away from their neighbours to the southeast, 79-69, for the first time since 1994 Tuesday night at the Schottenstein Center.

"I think as old of a basketball team we might think we are, there are still situations and times we need to continue to get better and having them come back in they way did, making big play after big play down the stretch and us having to come back and making plays on our own, that's something that's really going to help us later on," Craft, who finished the day with 18 points, said.

"It's games like this that really help us later on."

And for Ohio State's floor leader, 14 of those points came on free throws -- some of which helped stave off an Ohio team that cut the Buckeyes' lead to just five in the waning minutes of a contest that featured 55 total personal fouls.

"I think that's what we kind of came into this year having an understanding that's how games are going to be called definitely early. A lot of fouls, a lot of stoppage in play," Craft said.

"It really just makes you focus, we have to refocus every time the ball stops you have to execute on offense and defense and you can't really take plays off because every possession becomes that much more important. Fortunately, we were able to make enough plays down the stretch."

But at times in the game's second act, it appeared that Ohio State set itself on cruise control before falling asleep at the wheel.

"Hopefully we learn from this," Matta said. "We got a little dazed look in our eyes there for a stretch."

Perhaps what Matta is referring to is the game's final 20 minutes, which saw the Buckeyes connect on just 35 percent of its shots (seven-of-20). In the meantime, the Bobcats -- behind the steady play of Columbus natives Nick Kellogg and Stevie Taylor who totaled 21 points apiece -- mounted a comeback that seemed to create a sort of havoc not often found in early non-conference games such as Tuesday's.

"We've been in tight situations before. They had momentum, they had courage they thought they were going to win the game," said senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr.

"You celebrate when you make shots, especially when you're playing a team like Ohio State. For some teams, they might have panicked but for us I wouldn't expect us to sit and panic at all. We've been at every spectrum of a basketball game, we've been in tight situations."

Which, to his credit, seems like a fair notion for a Buckeyes squad that finished in the Elite Eight the year prior.

But this bout against unranked Ohio, of course, was not like the games Smith Jr. alluded to. Ohio State entered the contest as roughly 17-point favorites and played the part for the better part of 40 minutes against the Bobcats.

By and large, Matta's crew maintained a double-digit advantage that began with a 9-0 burst to start the action.

Behind stingy first-half defense and solid play in transition, the Buckeyes appeared to assert themselves as the aggressors against a seemingly flustered and frazzled adversary.

"I don't think they were intimidated, I just think we just got off to a poor start, we had some empty shots," said Ohio coach Jim Christian.

"I think a lot of games like this when you play a ranked team, you have to make shots early to put some confidence (in them). But one thing about our team is that even when we start off poor, I knew we'd fight. The one thing about this team and I've been saying it since last spring, you're going to be hard pressed to find anybody that plays harder. We didn't play very intelligently at times."

The Bobcats came close to making up for such mental lapses in the second half, outscoring Ohio State, 41-39, after trailing at intermission, 40-28.

"We got some stops and we scored on the other end," Christian said. "We got easier shots, it's a credit to them."

And against a team like Matta's, that might be a feat in and of itself.

"Listen, there's not many better defensive teams in the country and I don't think there's anybody better on the perimeter defensively in the guys that they have in terms of guarding one-on-one, in terms of keeping pressure on the basketball," Christian said.

In Craft's eyes, though, the Buckeyes relented in that part of the game.

"I think where we get in trouble is we get a little lax on defense, maybe we don't help each other as much and when we do that we either give up layups and it's hard to run and get in transition," he said.

"If we foul a lot, that just kind of shows that we're not really playing our style of defense, we're not playing hard enough."

On the day, Ohio State committed 34 fouls and Smith Jr. reiterated a similar sentiment.

"I don't think they did anything that took us out of our game. If anything, we stopped trusting our system and stopped doing the things that obviously put points on the board for us," he said. "We struggled a little bit from the free throw line down the stretch and you got to make plays, you got to make shots. Unfortunately, we weren't hitting wide-open shots and the game just got real ugly."

Ugly? Perhaps. But the Buckeyes, of course, will take a win any way they can before a road trip to No. 17 Marquette Saturday.

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