Junior center Terence Dials recorded his third consecutive double-double with 24 points and 10 rebounds, leading the Buckeyes (11-2) to their sixth straight win.
After leading 36-26 at halftime, it looked as if Ohio State might run away with this one. However, the Hawks (3-6) kept fighting back.
With 8:04 left in the game, St. Joseph's Pat Carroll knocked down a jumper and cut OSU's lead to 54-51. It was the closest the game had been since the latter stages of the first half, and it would get no closer.
The Buckeyes went on a 9-2 run – highlighted by a Matt Sylvester three-point play on a fast break. With 4:42 left in the game, Ohio State led 63-53, and it would not look back.
From his days battling St. Joseph's while he was the coach at Xavier, Ohio State's Thad Matta knew the Hawks would be a tough squad to defeat.
"Tonight we beat a good basketball team," Matta said. "We knew coming in it was going to be a 40 minute war. I think we had a slow start with the defense – we gave up 10 points in the first four minutes. In the second half, we came out and didn't have the defensive mentality we needed. That let them make some great runs. I was much happier when we settled down and started to play some good defense."
Once again, the 6-9 Dials was the difference for OSU. He was going up against 6-11 Dwayne Jones of St. Joseph's, but it wasn't much of a battle. Jones finished with just seven points and eight rebounds.
"Offensively, Terence was good," Matta said. "And I thought he was really good defensively as well. He really took to the scouting in this game. He got himself in good defensive position and went after the rebounds hard."
Dials also knocked down eight of his nine free throw attempts.
"I've been more focused on my free-throw shooting and taking more shots in practice," Dials said. "The more repetition the better and I've been fortunate to knock them down in the games."
Jones is one of the top shot blockers in the nation and finished with three against the Buckeyes. However, in the first half, he simply could not contain the more physical Dials.
"Dwayne Jones, the coaches probably got on him after the first half," Dials said. "He came more aggressive in the second half and that gave me an opportunity to go to the line and make free throws."
Following the game, St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli rearranged the seating in the media interview room (he felt OSU's stage was too flimsy and didn't want to fall off of it) and then had a few things to say about the game.
"I thought every guy on our team made bonehead plays," Martelli said. "We have to shore that up before we get into league play. Everybody tried, but you're supposed to try. You get a scholarship to play. The individual breakdowns hurt. We don't have enough talent to overcome the bonehead plays."
Martelli didn't try and do anything special in terms of defending Dials. He had faith in Jones to control the paint when he was in the game.
"In the second half, we played (Dials) one-on-one, except when Dwayne Jones was out and then we ran a second big guy at him," Martelli said.
With 3:47 left in the first half, Ohio State's lead was just 22-21. However, the Buckeyes closed the half with an impressive 14-5 run to take control of the game heading into the locker room.
"We really closed that first half strong, and that was huge," Matta said. "But we knew St. Joe's wasn't going to quit."
In fact, all of Sylvester's points came during the key 9-2 run late in the second half.
"I've been telling these guys that I should be the go-to guy all season, but they haven't been listening," Sylvester quipped. "No, I just got into the flow of the game and allowed the game to come to me. I took advantage of the opportunities I got. It felt good to get going and help my team out."
Butler, a freshman guard, came to OSU with the reputation as a prolific scorer, but it was his defense that stood out against St. Joe's.
"Coach Matta pushes us every day to play hard on the defensive end of the court and that's what I'm trying to do," Butler said. "I know how important it is to play good defense at the collegiate level. I couldn't get my offense going early so I just tried to get my team going with my defense."
Chet Stachitas led St. Joe's with 16 points. Carroll added 14.
Matta was just relived to beat his good friend Martelli.
"I think this game was a great test for our team," Matta said. "St. Joe's is 3-6 and if you can find a better 3-6 team I'd like to see who they are. We needed to have a game where we were back and forth on the court a bit. I think it helps us prepare for the next 17 games."
Next up for Ohio State is a showdown with No. 1 Illinois Wednesday in Champaign.
"Let's do it," Dials said. "Can't ask for a better (Big Ten) opening game against the No. 1 team in the nation. We're going to have to play flawless to come out with a win."
Matta was asked what he is most pleased with about his team as it enters the Big Ten slate.
"We're healthy, knock on wood," he said. "Our mentality is getting better. The last two games we've had like this – Texas Tech and now St. Joe's – we did what we needed to win down the stretch. There comes a time when you need to be tough and get stops and we didn't do that in November. I think we're playing better now and it starts with mental toughness."
* Game notes: After a 39-year hiatus of playing games on New Year's Eve, the Buckeyes improved their Dec. 31 record to 14-4 with the win over Saint Joseph's. … Ohio State last played on Dec. 31 against West Texas – a 78-54 win – during the 1965-66 season. … Ohio State is 4-0 all-time against Saint Joseph's and tonight marked the first meeting between the two schools not in a tournament setting. … The Buckeyes are 19-7 against schools from the Atlantic 10 Conference. … Head coach Thad Matta is 4-1 all-time against the Hawks. … Ohio State is 85-20 all-time in Value City Arena and 9-0 at home this season.