In Ohio State's first game of many without junior forward David Lighty, the Buckeyes remained unbeaten with a 71-53 victory against visiting Iona on Star Wars day at Value City Arena but showed signs that more difficult times might be ahead.
Holding a four-point halftime lead, the Buckeyes (8-0) came out and immediately let the Gaels (4-7) seize control in the first two minutes. Two baskets on two possessions gave Iona a 29-28 lead that stretched to three points on a runner by guard Scott Machado with exactly 18 minutes left.
During that stretch, Iona out-shot OSU by a 7-2 margin and grabbed four offensive rebounds. During the timeout, Buckeye head coach Thad Matta delivered a little pep talk to his players.
" ‘Your security blanket is not here. It's time to play basketball.' That was the gist of what it was," Matta said.
It was not for a few more minutes – with Lauderdale and Mullens still on the bench – that the Buckeyes were finally able to seize control. An Evan Turner trey tied the game, but a 7-1 OSU run made it 38-32 Buckeyes with 14:53 left.
That run was ignited by arguably the first hustle play of the afternoon. OSU junior guard Jeremie Simmons stole the ball near midcourt and drove the basket but missed his shot. Still fighting, he came up with the offensive rebound and drew a foul on his ensuing shot attempt.
Simmons then canned both free-throw attempts to make it 33-31 Buckeyes, and the run was on.
"That was right after coach had challenged us, so I tried to come up with a big play," Simmons said. "I knew if I got the rebound back I knew I was going to put it back up."
Iona would cut it back down to three, but a 6-0 run capped by an alley-oop dunk thrown down by freshman guard William Buford brought the crowd of 14,029 to its feet and effectively put the game out of reach.
"We just have team chemistry," Buford said. "We read off of each other, so when he saw me on the break he just threw it up and knew I was going to get it."
Lauderdale would remain on the bench until the 9:25 mark, while Mullens stayed there until 2:46 was left in the game. In their place, junior Kyle Madsen had one rebound and one block but played well and received a standing ovation from the crowd as he returned to the bench.
The move to the smaller lineup was exactly what Iona head coach Kevin Willard said he hoped the Buckeyes would not do.
"I was hoping he'd stay big as long as possible because that gave us a better chance of hanging in with them," Willard said. "They still have good size even though they went small. If I go small, it's a little different. The biggest difference is some quickness and length out there. They lose a lot, but they have some really good weapons out there. I think that's the key."
Despite the victory, there were plenty of signs for concern – primarily on the defensive end. The Buckeyes looked sluggish and out of position as they tried to replace the versatile Lighty, who mans one of the two post spots and uses his athleticism to make up for lack of size. The Buckeyes also frequently failed to get a body on defenders, allowing plenty of close looks. On top of that, OSU continued to show an propensity to lose shooters and allow plenty of open looks from beyond the arc – a situation that allowed Iona to go 9 for 26 (34.6 percent) from beyond the arc.
It was the kind of play that will come back to hurt the Buckeyes when they run into teams with more athleticism down the line than Iona had to offer.
"This is one of the challenges this team has," Matta said. "We've got a lot of guys that haven't been through it before. I said it at the beginning of the year: you can't teach experience."
Leading the way offensively was Turner, who finished with 21 points and six rebounds. He, too, was off at times, committing four turnovers against two assists. Classmate Jon Diebler had 16 points, 11 of which came from the charity stripe, while freshman William Buford came off the bench to add 10 points.
Without Lighty, Turner found himself logging plenty of minutes at the power forward spot. He played 39 minutes, while Diebler did not take a break for the entire game.