PITTSBURGH – The Ohio State men’s basketball team simply wasn’t going to be denied in its 2012 NCAA Tournament opener.
It wasn’t a flashy win, but the No. 2-seeded Buckeyes did the job that was required to defeat No. 15-seeded Loyola (MD), 78-59, at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Sophomore guard Deshaun Thomas scored a career-high 31 points on 13-of-22 shooting in a game that started Thursday night and ended early Friday morning to help OSU (28-7) knock the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association champion Greyhounds (24-10) from the tournament.
Thomas added 12 rebounds in the game while sophomore forward Jared Sullinger contributed 12 points and 10 rebounds. Loyola was led by junior forward Erik Etherly’s 16 points.
With the win, OSU advances to face No. 7-seed Gonzaga in a the third-round of the Tournament. Gonzaga bounced No. 10-seed West Virginia, 77-54, on Thursday to advance to the third round.
After the game, OSU coach Thad Matta said that the Buckeyes did uncharacteristic things in the win.
“This tournament is about advancing,” Matta said, “and that’s what we did tonight.”
Sullinger was quick to credit OSU’s survival to Thomas.
“I don’t think we would have won (the game) without (Deshaun Thomas),” Sullinger said. ”
Loyola came out firing and jumped out to a 5-1 lead. Sullinger answered in kind, delivering the Buckeyes’ first six points to give OSU its first lead.
By the 12:28 mark of the first half, the Buckeyes pushed the lead to 17-9. Thomas, who averaged 18 points per game in last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament, continued his offensive productivity with a team-high 14 points in the half.
Loyola got into foul trouble early in the half – OSU was in the bonus just more than 10 minutes into the game. The Buckeyes had ample opportunities to extend their lead from the charity stripe, and a free-throw by senior guard William Buford put his team in front, 33-22, with 6:30 to play.
Buford finished the game with 17 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
Minutes later, and one play removed from having a shot blocked, a determined Sullinger fought for a score underneath the basket to put the Buckeyes up, 35-22.
OSU led by as much as 15 in the half and took a 42-31 lead into the intermission. OSU shot 34 percent while Loyola used 41 percent shooting to keep its deficit at 11 points.
The Buckeyes extended their lead as the game went deeper into the night.
A CONSOL Energy Center-record crowd of 19,413 attended the second session of NCAA Tournament basketball at the venue, though many fans began to exit the arena as midnight approached.
The Thomas-led OSU squad stuck around to finish the game. Thomas scored nine points in the first eight minutes of the half to give OSU a game-high 19-point lead with 12:35 to play.
“I was just trying to get in the right spots at the right time, run a play, run with place like coach always tells us,” Thomas said. “Then I was just knocking them down. I was just feeling it a bit.”
Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos credited OSU’s sophomore forward after the game.
“Thomas is a great player,” Patsos said. “Enough said.”
Loyola kept OSU from blowing the game wide open, but the Buckeyes’ offensive attack was a well-rounded one – eight players scored in the game.
OSU junior forward Evan Ravenel missed the first of two free-throw attempts with just more than six minutes to play in the game. Ravenel cringed and smiled after the miss – victory was in-hand for coach Thad Matta’s team.
Sullinger, Thomas and Buford were lifted from the game shortly thereafter, but returned with less than three minutes to play as Loyola cut its deficit to 11 points.
Buford hit two 3-pointers as time wound down to put the Buckeyes up by 19. That advantage held as time expired.
Having watched Gonzaga pick West Virginia apart during the second half of that game, Sullinger said OSU needed to play better or risk seeing its tournament run end.
“Honestly, if we come out the way we played today (against Gonzaga)… and play the way we played, we’re definitely going to be packing our bags and going home for sure,” Sullinger said.
Tipoff for OSU and Gonzaga’s third-round game at CONSOL Energy Center Saturday will tip 30 minutes after No. 1 Syracuse and No. 8 Syracuse finish their East Region third-round game.