Ohio State fans were not the only ones, apparently, with their minds on the Big Ten football championship game yesterday. Or at least something other than the men’s basketball game at Value City Arena.
The No. 5 Buckeyes built an early lead on Central Connecticut State but then struggled to put away the Blue Devils before winning 74-56 and scattering elsewhere to watch the football game. The game drew the arena’s smallest crowd of the season, an announced 13,640.
“Our mindset wasn’t right,” guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “Whether it be finals (which started last week) or the football game, I don’t think any of that affected our game today. It was just us. We weren’t ready to play when we came out of the tunnel.”
LaQuinton Ross scored 23 points, a career high and the most by a Buckeye this season, and Smith had 17 to lead Ohio State (8-0), which led by only eight points seven minutes into the second half before a 10-0 run opened up the game.
Faronte Drakeford scored 12 points and Matt Mobley 10 to lead Central Connecticut State (2-6), which changed the momentum of the game after switching to a zone defense out of a timeout less than 10 minutes into the first half. The Blue Devils trailed by 12 points at the time and by nine at halftime after having come as close as five.
“We just put a 3-2 zone in the other day and I thought it was beneficial to us. They made four threes and missed 13,” coach Howie Dickenman said. “Our game plan was to take away the fast break … and I thought we did a good job. They had four fast-break points.”
Still, Ohio State made more than half of its shots for the third game in a row. Problem was, Central Connecticut also was making more than half of its shots well into the second half, many inside the Buckeyes defense despite giving up inches. It did not put a player taller than 6 feet 7 on the court.
“We had no activity off the ball,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “They drove the ball and at times we didn’t even rotate. Those are things we can’t do.”
With the smaller opponent slicing through his defense, Matta countered with his own smaller lineup after having not used it in recent games because of the progress made by 6-11 center Amir Williams. With Ohio State leading 47-37 with 15:35 remaining, Matta replaced Williams with 6-7 Sam Thompson and slid the 6-8 Ross into Williams’ position.
“We just felt like on the defensive end, if we went small, we were able to switch more (screens) and we were able to help on the guards more and able to get back (in transition),” Ross said.
At that point, Central Connecticut was shooting 53.1 percent from the field. It shot 33.3 percent the rest of the game.
“We just felt like that would be the lineup that would probably give us the most energy out there,” Matta said.
Leading by eight points with 131/2 minutes to play, the Buckeyes scored the next 10 points, eight of them off turnovers, to open a 59-41 lead with 9:58 left, and the margin was not less than 13 points the rest of the way.
Matta said he told his players afterward to learn from the game “but, by the same token, wash it down the drain in the shower and be a better basketball team on Wednesday night than we were today.”
Ohio State’s next game is at home against Bryant at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.