Buckeyes Prevail In Opener

Behind a balanced scoring attack and a desire to extend its season for at least another game, Ohio State defeated UNC Asheville in the first round of the Mastercard NIT Tournament. Story updated at 9:41 p.m. with quotes.

Fears that Ohio State would view its not being selected to the NCAA Tournament as a snub worthy of phoning in an appearance in the Mastercard NIT Tournament proved to be unfounded.

Instead of finishing their season on a ignominious note, the Buckeyes responded with their highest point total since December en route to an 84-66 victory against UNC Asheville in the first round of the tournament.

Played on campus at OSU, the Buckeyes pulled away for the victory in front of 7,117 fans that dotted the lower bowl of Value City Arena in Columbus.

The Buckeyes held a 10-point halftime lead that Asheville would cut to six at one point early in the second half, but the home team never looked back. OSU built a lead that reached 19 points on two separate occasions, using what basically came down to superior athleticism to put away its foes from the Big South Conference.

"Once we lose, we're done and that will be my last game in this uniform," said senior guard Jamar Butler, who finished with a game-high 21 points. "I don't want that to happen anytime soon, so hopefully we can go on a streak here and get to New York and win this thing."

The last time OSU scored so many points came against the University of Maryland Baltimore College on Dec. 29, a 92-83 victory in Columbus.

The biggest story of the game – literally – was Asheville center Kenny George. Listed at 7-7, 360 pounds, George affected both ends of the court in his near season-high 27 minutes, he scored 12 points and added 11 rebounds, barely displaying effort as he dunked the ball without leaving the ground.

"I played OK," George said. "I held my own. If I had done some things differently, maybe it would've made enough difference to overturn the game."

OSU's frontcourt duo of Kosta Koufos and Othello Hunter – listed at 7-0 and 6-8, respectively – came up to roughly George's neck as they attempted to defend him. And while they might have come up short in the majority of the individual battles, the Buckeyes.

"He's a tremendous player," Koufos said of George. "He's got a bright future ahead of himself."

George was far from the only weapon for Asheville, however. Guards Bryan Smithson and K.J. Garland added 17 and 10 points, respectively, while forward Reid Augst went 8 of 12 from the floor for a team-high 20 points.

"They had us rotating and moving and really did a good job," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "When they flashed and played a high-low game and threw it up in the air, I told our guys, ‘Fellas, I don't know what to tell you.' "

A first half marred by turnovers – mostly by the visitors – and characterized by runs ended with the Buckeyes leading by 10 points at 45-35.

Facing OSU's full-court pressure, the Bulldogs were forced into 16 first-half turnovers. The Buckeyes turned those into 22 points, helping to build their halftime lead. At one point, Asheville turned the ball over on four straight possessions. OSU capitalized with a Diebler layup on a fast break and both a trey and a layup by Lighty, turning what was a four-point lead into a 27-16 advantage with 10:07 left in the first half.

But from there, the Bulldogs went on a 12-2 run to pull to within one point at the 6:43 mark. After the teams traded baskets, OSU closed the half on a 14-5 run that was aided by four more Bulldog turnovers.

Still, it would not have been a close game if not for the fact that Asheville connected on 14 of 22 first-half shots, good enough for a 63.6 percent clip. OSU was not far behind, going 19 of 33 (57.6 percent).

Lighty, who entered the game averaging 8.7 points per contest, finished the first half with 13 points on 5 of 8 shooting. He had not scored more than 12 points in a game since late January, when he finished with 16 against Illinois on Jan. 22.

OSU's lead was so great with 53.9 seconds left that Matta inserted walk-ons Mark Titus and Danny Peters into the contest to join with seldom-used reserves P.J. Hill, Kyle Madsen and Eric Wallace.

Peters added a basket with less than 15 seconds to play to close out the scoring.

OSU will now face the winner of California and New Mexico, a game that will take place Wednesday night at 11 p.m. Eastern. As the No. 1 seed, the Buckeyes will host the game on Monday in St. John Arena at an as-yet undetermined time.

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