Three days after Ohio State needed a second-half rally to defeat IUPUI, the second-ranked Buckeyes seized control early against Western Carolina and cruised to an 85-60 victory.
At halftime of OSU's win against IUPUI, head coach Thad Matta took his team to task and challenged their toughness. Midway through this one, the coach offered a different message to his charges.
"He said we got our toughness back," freshman forward Jared Sullinger said.
Playing in front of 6,905 fans in St. John Arena, the former home of the team before Value City Arena was completed in 1998, the Buckeyes wasted no time taking control of this one.
Sullinger scored from the left wing on the first possession of the game, but the Catamounts (4-8) would answer four possessions later to tie the score. A jumper from OSU's William Buford pushed OSU ahead again by a 4-2 mark on the next possession.
The Catamounts would not get that close again. Buford's basket was the start of an 11-0 run that made it 13-2 at the 14:24 mark and Western Carolina would never get it to within 10 points the rest of the way.
When Sullinger converted a pair of free throws to make it 24-9 at the 8:17 mark, the Catamounts had proven to be their own worst enemies. At the ensuing media time out with 7:51 remaining, Western Carolina had taken 10 shots, given away 11 turnovers and committed eight fouls.
It could have been worse. That included a stretch of four turnovers on five possessions during which OSU was only able to score four points.
"I thought we came out and had a little more intensity to our defense," Matta said. "I thought we were a little more aware off the ball. Overall, getting back onto the game track I'm pretty pleased with how those guys played."
The highlight of the half – and arguably the game – came with less than five minutes remaining and the Buckeyes leading 31-16. After freshman guard Aaron Craft came up with his second steal of the half, OSU worked the ball around on a possession that saw each player touch the ball at least once. When it finally reached senior forward Dallas Lauderdale on the right block, his thunderous dunk capped an impressive offensive possession and brought the crowd roaring to its feet.
It was Buford who was credited with the assist, one of four he had in the first half. Matta said he thought each Buckeye had touched the ball twice on the possession.
"We were scrambling, doing a pretty good job and they kept moving the ball," Western Carolina head coach Larry Hunter said. "It was reversed a couple times, someone penetrated and the found the guy right in front of the basket and he finished it with a dunk. It was pretty good effort on our part but really good ball movement by them. I heard the crowd at that point."
When both teams went into their locker rooms, OSU held a 42-35 lead and had not turned the ball over. Fourteen of the home team's points came courtesy of 14 Western Carolina turnovers.
Sullinger was one of five Buckeyes to score in double figures, leading his team with 17 points in 22 minutes. Afterward, he said he has been battling a cold and flu that Matta said had his status for the game in doubt earlier in the day. Likewise, Lauderdale had been battling a similar illness since the IUPUI game.
Lauderdale, junior guard William Buford and freshman Deshaun Thomas each had 13 points while Jon Diebler added 10. Western Carolina was led by guard Mike Williams, who had 22 points on 4 of 6 shooting from three-point range.
The Buckeyes were able to substitute liberally throughout the contest. Seldom-used freshmen J.D. Weatherspoon and Lenzelle Smith checked in with 9:17 to go and their team ahead 71-38 and did not exit the game. Classmate Jordan Sibert – the eighth man in head coach Thad Matta's rotation – first checked in at the 12:32 mark of the first half.
Senior walk-on guard Eddie Days saw his first action of the season when he was inserted into the lineup with 1:08 remaining and OSU ahead 85-54. No Buckeye saw more than 25 minutes of action.
The Catamounts were playing their fourth of seven straight road contests and dropped to 0-36 all-time against teams ranked in the top 25.
"I love it," Sullinger said. "It's loud. It's way smaller than the Schottenstein Center. St. John has a lot of history here. I was just happy to be a part of it."
The Buckeyes were playing their first game in their former home since the 2008-09 season opener, a 70-42 victory against Delaware State. The temporary relocation was made necessary because Value City Arena was booked for OSU's fall commencement.