Playing in the team's former home of St. John Arena against a team they last faced in the 1960 national championship, the Buckeyes (21-13) downed visiting California (17-16) by a 73-56 score to advance to the quarterfinals of the tournament.
Thanks to a scheduling conflict, OSU's occasional practice gym and the home of men's basketball for 41 years was treated to its second game of the season – and a big performance by the home team. After enjoying a six-day layoff since dispatching UNC Asheville in the first round of the NIT, the Buckeyes overcame a slow start to earn a lopsided victory.
"I thought we had great energy," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "We got our offense going at the end of the first half … and once we got going, we had good patience with the ball and got the shots we wanted on offense."
That they did.
Cal held the lead early and opened up an 11-6 lead less than seven minutes in, but the first of two significant OSU runs put the home team back on top. Defensive intensity allowed the Buckeyes to put together a 10-2 run during which the visitors went 1 for 6 from the field and turned the ball over once. The Golden Bears would respond with a modest 6-2 run and regain the lead at 19-18 with 6:40 remaining, but the Buckeyes would answer in a big way.
OSU ended the first half on a 17-4 run that was keyed by three treys from Jamar Butler, the school's all-time three-point leader. The senior hit on three in a row – including two on back-to-back possessions – and headed into the locker room with 14 points on 4 of 9 shooting from beyond the arc.
His final trey of the half made it 35-21 and caused the Bears to call a timeout. As the sellout crowd of 12,595 at St. John Arena erupted, center Kosta Koufos exhorted them to cheer louder, jumping up and down while waving his arms in jubilation.
"Jamar's a tremendous shooter and he gave us some momentum," Koufos said. "I just felt really excited at that point. They tease me about it."
Cal's Ryan Anderson would add a basket in the final seconds of the half to set the score at 35-23. Butler got off a clean trey attempt right before the buzzer went off that looked clean but it bounced around and rolled out.
Prior to Butler's first trey of the half-ending run, the Buckeyes were just 1 for 12 as a team from beyond the arc. The senior co-captain cited the team's defense as the primary reason why the home team was able to pull away so decisively.
"We tied them up and it led to easy buckets," he said. "They lost me a few times and I took advantage of it."
The second half served as basically a formality as OSU squad put together a few clips for the postseason highlight video. The highlight came early in the half when Butler fired a pass from beyond midcourt to a streaking David Lighty. The sophomore leaped, snagged the pass and converted the layup, bringing the crowd to its feet and pushing the OSU lead to what was then a game-high 20 points.
The Bears entered the game third in the country in free-throw shooting percentage at .777 but did not get to the charity stripe until the second half when Anderson connected on two free-throws to make the score 44-27 Buckeyes.
Anderson, a second-team All-American who averaged 21.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game this season, struggled against OSU's 3-2 zone defense and never got into a rhythm. Unable to get into a rhythm, he finished with a team-high 11 points on 4 of 11 shooting, tying a season-low mark.
With 2:41 remaining, Matta was able to empty his bench and employ seldom-used reserves Kyle Madsen and Eric Wallace. Madsen added a basket with 53.7 seconds remaining, while Wallace scored with just less than 26 seconds left.
Butler led all scorers with 20 points despite not attempting a three-pointer in the second half. Koufos added 17 points on 8 of 10 shooting, but the biggest praise from Matta came for senior forward Othello Hunter.
The co-captain finished with 11 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. Afterward, his coach said he "played like a man tonight."
"On my way here … Coach Peters and I were talking and he said I needed to get 12 rebounds," Hunter said. "I just thought, ‘alright.' I guess I got more than 12, but I was just trying to get more than 12, really.
"I think if I would've stayed in longer I could've gotten 20.
Suddenly, a team that was arguably at its lowest point less than two weeks ago when it was not selected to make the NCAA Tournament is playing with an extra sense of confidence and pride. Although the victory came against the ninth-place team in the Pac-10, the Buckeyes appeared loose and free both on and off the court. After the game, the players stuck around and signed autographs for a solid 20 minutes following postgame interviews.
Next up is an intra-state showdown with Atlantic 10 foe Dayton. The Buckeyes will move back to the Jerome Schottenstein Center – dubbed "St. Schott" by Matta – for the chance to advance to the semifinal round of the NIT. The tip-off time has not been decided, but the Buckeyes will host the game on Wednesday.