DAYTON, Ohio – Iona came into its matchup against Ohio State apparently calm and confident that they could hang with-and maybe even beat-the Big Ten tournament champions in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Such self-assurance wobbled, wavered and eventually cracked against the No. 2-seeded Buckeyes.
Playing about an hour away from home, OSU coach Thad Matta’s crew ultimately routed the No. 15-seeded Gaels, 95-70, Friday at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton. With the win, OSU will take on No. 10 seed Iowa State Sunday at 12:15 p.m.
As part of a season-high total of 95 points, junior forward Deshaun Thomas’ 24 points led the Buckeyes in its first game of a larger charge toward a return to the Final Four and sophomore forward Sam Thompson quite literally dunked his way to 20 points.
Winners of their last nine games in a row, OSU used a 22-2 run midway through the first half to subdue and conquer Iona, which seized the game’s lead, 6-5, at the 16:42 mark. Never again would they lead the contest against a Buckeyes squad shooting 48 percent from the floor.
Following the game, OSU junior guard Aaron Craft emphasized the importance of starting the game fast.
“We can’t have bad starts,” Craft said. “Not that we’re playing perfect, but we know we have to come out with energy and we knew they were going to come out with a lot of energy and a lot of fire.”
After bloating its lead to 19 points, OSU found itself in a game of ebbs and flows against the Gaels which, behind sophomore forward David Laury and senior guard Lamont “Momo” Jones, would not limp away quietly.
“I thought that, when you play a team like Iona, they’re just never out of the basketball game and just from the standpoint we got off to a pretty good start,” Matta said after the game. “Give them credit, they got back on us.”
Despite a shaky 36-percent shooting outing in the first half, Iona found ways to hang around and furiously chip away at an arduous deficit. Thanks to Laury’s 12 points and Jones’ seven, the Gaels headed into the game’s intermission trailing, 43-33.
“We lost our focus, our concentration a little bit,” Matta said.
The Buckeyes would get it back, though.
Part of it, said junior forward Lenzelle Smith Jr., was playing it what felt like a virtual home game in Dayton.
“Right now, it’s all emotional right now. It’s survive and advance,” Smith, who had 12 points, said.
“You play off the emotion, and the crowd definitely gave us that boost today.”
While the Gaels’ effort was one that seemed to extend the game, Iona could not muster the ability to climb its way back into the contest.
While OSU outscored them, 52-37, in the second half, Laury finished the day with 14 points and Jones, who said he wouldn’t be surprised if his team came out with the win earlier in the week, bowed out the tournament with nine points.
Senior Evan Ravenel said it made for a certain sentiment associated with shutting down Jones and the Gaels.
“It’s a good feeling when guys are kind of vocal like that and want to say things,” Ravenel, who had 11 points, said.
“It’s a good feeling to be able to be like ‘Yeah we backed it up, we backed up what we’re about.'”
And in a West Region that saw No. 3 seed New Mexico, No. 4 seed Kansas State, No. 5 seed Wisconsin, No. 6 seed Arizona all lose in the tournament’s first weekend, the path to the Final Four seems paved if OSU continues to play at a high level.
But Craft said that’s a dangerous mindset to get into.
“I hope we don’t feel comfortable … we got a good win today. But we have to find a way to get better tomorrow,” he said.
“Whether of it’s practice (or ) film study of whoever we got to play. We have got to continue to be humble, we’ve got to continue to be hungry.”