Following Ohio State's big win over Kentucky Dec. 19, coach Thad Matta questioned if his team would be able to replicate the energy and intensity they showed in that win when the lights weren't as bright.
In the early going against Mercer Tuesday night he didn't get the answer he wanted.
Although the Buckeyes pulled away in the second half for a 64-44, Ohio State (7-5) was sluggish to start against the Bears (9-3).
The Buckeyes took 3:16 to score their first basket, hitting just one of their first 11 shots and followed that make with a 4:14 scoring drought. Ohio State, who turned the ball over just 11 times in the victory over the Wildcats, gave it away 12 times in the first half and missed all nine of its 3-point attempts.
The poor offensive showing made the defensive side of the ball all the more important.
“I thought we kept playing on the defensive end," Matta said of the slow start. "Our offense was as bad as it could possibly be. I think we were 8 for 16 at halftime in the paint, but fortunately we did keep defending. I don’t know that we would have kept defending a couple weeks ago."
Ohio State forced Mercer into 25 turnovers on the night.
After a 7-0 run that ended with a back-door alley-oop gave Mercer a 20-13 advantage with 7:32 remaining in the first half, things began to turn for the Buckeyes, at least inside the 3-point line. A jumper from JaQuan Lyle started a 10-0 run that would close the half for Ohio State.
A Jae'Sean Tate steal set up another Lyle jumper before a Marc Loving tip-in made it 20-19 with 5:37 remaining. The Buckeyes took their first lead of the night when Daniel Giddens hauled in a rebound and found Lyle streaking down the floor for a transition layup.
“I feel like we started to play harder late in the second half," Lyle said. "We started to get a run but we couldn’t pull away and then the second half we kept that intensity and continued to play hard and with the result we pulled away and got a 20-point win.”
The assertiveness over that run was indicative of Lyle's night as the freshman point guard played a controlled game, finishing with a team-high 18 points, three assists a block and two steals.
Four points in the paint for Mercer and dunks from Loving and Bates-Diop would bring the teams to the halftime with the Buckeyes leading 25-24.
The Kentucky hangover fully subsided at halftime as the Buckeyes scored on their first three possessions after intermission and hit five of their first 8 shots to build a 38-28 advantage.
I think we just came out sluggish because we weren’t making shots," Lyle said. "We were getting great looks but they just weren’t dropping. We were still playing great defense, so that was just from us not making shots and thinking too much.”
Lyle's strong game continued as he scored the next six Ohio State points to push the advantage to 44-30. The Bears clawed back within nine before four straight points from Tate made it 51-38 with 7:01 left and Mercer would not pull within single digits the rest of the way.
The Buckeyes were able to create second-half separation despite dismal shooting from three. Ohio State missed its first 16 attempts from distance as six different players failed to connect on what were mostly good looks. Bates-Diop finally hit one from distance with 5:19 remaining to make it 56-40.
Kam Williams followed with a three a little over two minutes later to give the Buckeyes their largest lead of the night at 61-42, allowing Ohio State to coast over the final three minutes.
Joining Lyle in double figures for the Buckeyes were Bates-Diop with 12 and Tate with 13. Tate added a game-high seven steals as part of the 17 the Buckeyes registered on the night. Thompson and Bates-Diop each had eight rebounds in the win.
Ohio State finished just 3 of 22 (13.6 percent) from three as walk-on Joey Lane added a three in the final minute.
Mickey Mitchell, declared eligible Dec. 18 after missing the Buckeyes first 10 games, made his first appearance for the Buckeyes.
"It was just nice to get out there and play basketball without constantly getting stopped like in practice," Mitchell said of his first game action since his senior year of high school. "It just felt good, just playing again and being out there with my teammates finally.”
He entered the game with 1:57 left in the first and the freshman forward played eight scoreless minutes, recording three rebounds and a steal.