It usually takes a lot to get mild-mannered Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta stirred up.
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But when his team’s defense failed to rotate and Albany’s Sam Rowley got an uncontested layup to put the Great Danes ahead 23-22 late in the first half, Matta had seen enough. The OSU coach called a timeout and ripped into his team. Suffice to say, they got the message.
The Buckeyes, ranked fourth in the preseason AP and USA Today coaches polls, went on a 17-2 run over the final 4-1/2 minutes of the first half and rolled to an 82-60 win over Albany in the season opener Sunday at Value City Arena.
“I saw Thad jump off the bench,” said Albany coach Will Brown. “He looked like he had a 40-inch vertical jump. I also saw how animated he was. That lit a fire under them.”
Matta added, “It definitely sparked a run.”
This was Ohio State’s season opener after Friday’s scheduled game against Marquette in the Carrier Classic was canceled after there was condensation on the outdoor court aboard the USS Yorktown in South Carolina.
“The guys were itching to play a game,” Matta said. “Obviously they were more ready Friday night against Marquette, but things didn’t work out. They responded well and realized the significance of what they were doing for our men and women in the armed services. We got back to Columbus and had a great shootaround this morning in preparation for Albany.”
Point guard Aaron Craft led the Buckeyes with 20 points and seven assists. Craft was a tidy 6 of 9 from the floor, including 5 of 7 on threes. The Buckeyes lost a pair of double-digit scorers in All-American Jared Sullinger and wing William Buford off last year’s team that went 31-8 and advanced to the Final Four. It’s clear Matta is hoping Craft can pick up some of that slack.
“I have to give him a lot of credit,” Matta said. “He spent a lot of time in the gymnasium (in the summer). Aaron is such a smart kid. He knows what this team needs. Having another guy who can put the ball in the basket is obviously something we need. He’s not going to force things. He took great shots and then to double it with seven assists, that’s great.”
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Preseason All-American Deshaun Thomas added 19 points. He had 16 of those points in the first half, including 13 during that spurt before the half that put the Buckeyes up 39-25 at the break. Thomas was 7 of 17 from the floor, including 4 of 9 on threes. Matta said Thomas showed maturity by not getting down when some of his early shots did not fall.
“I give Deshaun a lot of credit,” Matta said. “In the past, I don’t know if he could have played through that. One of those (threes) went in and came out. I could sense a hint of frustration during a timeout and had to get him back into it.”
OSU guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. had 18 points as he hit 8 of 11 shots from the floor, including both of his three-point tries. He also had five rebounds.
“Lenzelle, like Aaron, spent a lot of time shooting the basketball (during the off-season),” Matta said. “He finished the last season pretty good for us. If his feet are set and he goes straight up and straight down, he does a nice job with it.”
LaQuinton Ross came off the bench to chip in 10 points and five rebounds for OSU, while Shannon Scott had nine points. The Buckeyes were cold early, but turned it on as they hit 57 percent of their shots including 60 percent of their threes (12 of 20).
Mike Black led Albany (1-1) with 20 points, while Jacob Iati added 13 points. The Great Danes had opened with a 69-66 win over Duquesne on Friday night.
“They’re good,” Brown said of the Buckeyes. “There is a reason why they are ranked fourth or fifth in the country. Their size, athleticism and physicality wore us down.”
The Buckeyes got off to a slow start, missing their first five shots from the floor before Craft hit a three from the top of the key. Thomas then drained a three after Sam Thompson tapped out a miss to make it 8-4 with 15:45 left in the first half.
Thomas nets 19 points vs. Albany
OSU still led 14-8 after LaQuinton Ross had a rebound basket and Craft drove for a layup. Albany rallied for a 15-14 lead as Jacob Iati hit a three off an offensive rebound and also hit a pair of free throws.
The Buckeyes regained the lead on a three by Craft off a pass from Shannon Scott. Craft dished to Smith for a three that made it 22-19 with 5:50 left in the half.
Less than a minute later, though, Albany surged ahead as Black hit a running one-hander and, on the next possession, got the ball to Rowley, who rolled around Evan Ravenel for a layup and a 23-22 Great Danes lead.
Matta called timeout, pointed at Amir Williams to replace Ravenel and spent the full 30 seconds letting his team have it.
“I called a timeout after a scramble situation because I didn’t like one of our guys’ reactions,” Matta said. “He put his hands up and laid into a teammate and we’re not good enough to let our mistakes compound like that, so I got into him and said ‘Let’s go.’ ”
OSU responded with its nice 17-2 run to close the half. On the ensuing possession, Craft drove and dished to Thomas in the right corner for a three. Thomas then hit a layup, drew a foul and made the free throw. Thomas stayed hot as Craft found him again for a three – this time out top.
After Craft made 1 of 2 free throws, Thomas was back at it. He drove for a layup and converted a Ross offensive rebound into a jumper on the baseline.
“Coach Matta told us to play hard, keep knocking shots down and to not let up,” Thomas said. “Aaron [Craft] and Lenzelle [Smith Jr.] knocked down a couple shots and that’s what he wanted. We kept our intensity high.”
Albany’s Black stopped the scoring run with a pair of free throws with 56 seconds left. OSU had a final possession after a Ross defensive rebound. Williams came out to set a high screen for Craft, who drove down the left side of the lane and dished to Smith in the right corner. Smith splashed the three at the buzzer for a 39-25 halftime lead.
“I’m glad I was in the spot I was supposed to be,” Smith said. “Aaron saw me. He made the pass and I was able to knock down the shot. You always want to make those last-second shots.”
Albany’s Brown added, “The run they was bad. But the way they ended the half hitting the three … for a team like ours with a very little margin of error, something like that can be deflating for a team.”
The Buckeyes then blitzed the Great Danes with an 8-2 run to start the second half and build a 20-point lead.
Thomas hit a three. Then, after Iati scored for Albany, Craft hit a 25-foot three from the left wing and Smith had a layup on the break off a feed from Sam Thompson. OSU led 47-27 with 17:15 left in the game.
One of the best possessions of the early season helped OSU push the lead to 22. Ross drove to the left baseline and dished to Scott in the right corner. Scott drove to the lane and found Craft on the right wing. Craft drove back to the middle and found a wide open Ross on the left wing for a three that made it 55-33 with 12:39 left in the game.
The lead went to 25 at 60-35 as Smith had a hook in the lane and Ross tallied on a jumper in the lane with 9: 41 left.
It went to 27 after Smith canned a jumper to make it 67-40 with 7:25 left. Smith then rocked the house as he faked a three and drove for a two-handed jam that made it 69-43 with 6:22 left.
Matta substituted liberally in the final five minutes, leaving Smith out there with four subs. Albany took advantage and whittled the margin down to 15 at one point.
* Craft eclipsed his previous career high of 19 points, set against Penn State on Jan. 15, 2011. Albany’s Brown was impressed.
“I told our coaches that if Craft hits five or six threes, then it’s not meant to be,” Brown said. “He hit five … he’s going to play 10 years in the NBA. He just keeps getting better every year.”
Craft added, “In the offseason I worked to make those shots. We put a lot of effort in having guys shooting behind screens. My teammates have to trust me to make those shots and I’m earning their confidence. It’s not hard to knock down wide-open shots when you have great players working with you.”
* OSU’s big man tandem of Ravenel and Amir Williams was held scoreless. They ended up with six rebounds in 31 combined minutes.
“I was on them at halftime for their rebounding,” Matta said. “Amir and Evan had played 20 minutes and they had a combined three rebounds. But I thought their defense on the ball screens was as good as it’s been. They pushed up and did a good job.”
* Thompson added four points, five rebounds, four blocked shots and three assists for OSU.
* Freshman guard Amedeo Della Valle missed what would have been his college debut due to an ankle injury. His foot has been in a boot this week.
* OSU unfurled a banner celebrating its run to the Final Four in the rafters of VCA.
* This game was part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off event. It was webcast on BTN.com. Big Ten Network will show that broadcast on tape delay at 9:30 p.m. Monday.
* The starting lineup for the opener was Craft at point guard, Smith at shooting guard, Thompson at wing, Thomas at power forward and Ravenel at center.
* The Buckeyes are now 88-22 in season openers all-time. OSU has won nine straight season openers and 19 of its last 23 season openers dating to the 1990-91 season. In that span, OSU lost season openers to Ohio U. in 1994, South Florida in 1996, Notre Dame in 1999 and San Francisco in 2003. OSU is also now 92-18 all-time in home openers.
* OSU coach Thad Matta is now 9-0 in season openers at Ohio State. Matta has also won all 13 of his season openers as a college head coach.
* Under Matta, OSU is now 109-20 in nonconference games, 183-21 against unranked teams and 40-5 in November games.
* This was OSU’s first-ever match-up with Albany. OSU is now 5-1 all-time against teams in the America East Conference.
* The Buckeyes continue play in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off event next weekend with two games in the major conference bracket at Uncasville, Conn. OSU will face Rhode Island at 5 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN3.com) and then will meet either Washington or Seton Hall at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday (ESPN2).
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