DAYTON — As ridiculous as it might sound, there was a turning point last night in a 95-70 victory, Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament second-round rout of Iona.
A 17-point Buckeyes lead had shrunk to a mind-numbing four, 37-33, with a minute and a half left in the first half when guard Shannon Scott launched a pass where the ball might have been mistaken for a passing weather balloon. Sam Thompson somehow got his right hand on it — well, he does have a 46-inch vertical leap — and tomahawked it home with a dunk.
The thunderclap that erupted from the University of Dayton Arena seats might have awakened the dead 70 miles away in Columbus. By halftime, the Buckeyes’ lead was 10, and the margin was never that close again.
Uh, about that ridiculous turning point …
“They were cutting into the lead slowly,” Scott said, “and the way Sam threw it down, it really changed the game. All five guys on the court really pick up their defense when you get a dunk like that. Whenever he does that, we really pick it up.”
Thompson, a sophomore forward, didn’t do it just once, either. With an opponent that likes to get out and run, it quickly became clear what a mistake that would be against Ohio State. Thompson had a whole highlight reel of slams — four — in an inspired performance that seemed to juice his teammates.He finished with career highs of 20 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double.
Although this kind of performance would have been difficult to predict for a player who came in averaging seven points and three rebounds, the Ohio State fans who attended Thursday’s open practice were treated to a few hints of it. The practice turned into an NBA-style dunk contest, and Thompson was the clear star.
“I think one of the coaches challenged us, and Sam just went out and did it the way he did it,” Scott said. “It was great. We did what we could do, and he did everything else.”
“Everything else” included the kind of sleight-of-hand jams you see in dunk contests and nowhere else.
“Some of the stuff he did out there, we haven’t seen him do before,” Scott said. “I’ve never seen him windmill with his left before. He just kind of holds it out and brings it around right on top. I really don’t know what he can do yet.”
But those are individual slams. The ones on assists from Scott and Aaron Craft are more impressive because of the momentum shift they can create in a game. Georgetown, also a No. 2 seed, probably could have used one of those during its shocking loss to Florida Gulf Coast.
“It’s a great team play when two guys are on the same page for an alley-oop dunk,” Thompson said. “Shannon and Craft do a great job of finding me straight to the rim. They also do a great job of getting into the teeth of the defense and making the defense collapse on them, so it’s always a good team play. They put it right on the money, right on time every time. I do the easy job.”
Practice makes perfect, right?
“Naw, we don’t practice it; we all just trust Sam,” Scott said. “We feel like if we can get it around the hoop, he can get the ball.”
“Around the hoop” is subject to interpretation. On the dunk near the end of the first half, Scott’s alley-oop pass could have been mistaken for an orbiting planet. But somehow, Thompson’s right hand got there and jammed it home.
Dunks are only two points, but the energy that monster jams create should be studied by scientists. A big one at the right time can have a major impact.
This one turned a game that shouldn’t have been into what it was supposed to be.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.