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This maiden voyage for the Ohio State men’s basketball team was to have happened a week earlier, aboard an aircraft carrier in South Carolina, before dew made the season opener a don’t.
So the No.4-ranked Buckeyes instead played away from home for the first time yesterday, and it wasn’t pretty. But they weren’t concerned with style points after a 69-58 victory in Mohegan Sun Arena over a winless Rhode Island team playing less than an hour from home.
“Any way, anyhow, get the job done, win the game, and that’s what we did,” guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “We fought, we clawed, we didn’t break down. We had a few letdowns, but we kept fighting and we stuck together as a team and we pulled it out, and I’m happy for that.”
Deshaun Thomas scored 17 of his game-high 25 points after halftime and had 10 rebounds to lead Ohio State (2-0) to the championship game of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. The Buckeyes will face Washington at 4:30 p.m. today. The Huskies defeated Seton Hall 84-73 in overtime in the other semifinal last night.
Smith scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half and Aaron Craft had 13 points and four assists for the Buckeyes, who had more trouble with the Rams than most expected.
Guards Xavier Munford led Rhode Island (0-3) with 16 points while 5-foot-11, 175-pound point guard Mike Powell was a game competitor with 10 points and six assists while going most of the 40 minutes head-to-head with Craft.
“At the end of the day, they’re regular people just like us, so we went into the game with the mindset that it was a game we could win,” Powell said. “I know they’re ranked high and people probably thought we didn’t have a chance, but we all believed in ourselves.”
Ohio State led only 50-44 with less than seven minutes remaining before Thomas scored seven points in a 12-4 run that increased the Buckeyes’ lead to 62-48.
The run started with a Craft three-pointer bouncing twice on the rim before it fell, then Craft forcing a turnover by Powell on the inbounds play.
Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley earned a technical foul for protesting, and Thomas made both free throws.
“I thought Aaron Craft played a heck of a physical game on the ball,” Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley said. “I thought he was allowed to be a little bit too physical (on that play). I overstepped my bounds.”
All of Thomas’ points in the run came off turnovers, testament to the fact the Buckeyes turned the game in their favor with their defense and by scrapping for 13 offensive rebounds.
They had trouble figuring out Rhode Island’s switching defenses for much of the first half as the Rams built a 22-15 lead less than 12 minutes into the game.
In the final eight minutes, however, the Buckeyes began stringing together stops, got in transition and were able to get downcourt before Rhode Island could set up its defense. They outscored the Rams 15-4 in the final 7:34 to take a 30-26 lead at halftime.
“If we can’t figure out their defense, we might as well run in front of it,” Craft said. “I think once we got a couple things going, we started realizing that was our best option, so we just kept building off it.”
Rhode Island had one field goal in a span of 13 minutes overlapping halftime. But back-to-back threes by Powell, each with a second left on the shot clock, brought the Rams back, and Ohio State could not feel comfortable until the final minute.
“It definitely evens the playing field a little bit when you’re playing on a neutral court,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I think this will be good for our team in terms of growth, win or lose (today). This basketball team is nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of its effectiveness both offensively and defensively. I like this team, but we have a long way to go.”