Ohio State 78, Cent. Connecticut 57
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Greg Oden grabbed the ball off the backboard, slammed it through the net and screamed. It was the kind of athletic, powerful play that’s come to symbolize the Ohio State freshman’s breakout season.
Too bad it didn’t count.
A Central Connecticut foul before the shot wiped out the dunk, one of the few times Oden and the top-seeded Buckeyes were stopped during their 78-57 win over the Blue Devils Thursday in the opening round of the South Regional at Rupp Arena.
Oden finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds for his 12th double-double of the season as the Buckeyes (31-3) won their 18th straight game. Ohio State will play Xavier in the second round Saturday. The Musketeers beat BYU 79-77.
“The big thing was to just take my chances when I got it,” Oden said. “I’m trying to play stronger. It’s going to help me a lot in the long run.”
CCSU forward Obie Nwadike, who was giving away eight inches to the 7-foot Oden, said Oden’s talent surpassed the hype surrounding the Big Ten freshman of the year.
“He’s a lot bigger, a lot more athletic and a lot more agile than I thought he would be,” Nwadike said. “He changes a lot of shots. He makes a big impact even when he doesn’t have the ball because you have to find him.”
But as the Buckeyes showed during their workmanlike victory over the Northeastern Conference champions, Ohio State is hardly a one-prodigy show.
Jamar Butler scored 17 points and Ron Lewis added 13 as the Buckeyes quickly dispatched the game but ultimately overmatched Blue Devils (22-12). Ohio State needed less than five minutes to build a double-digit lead and kept the pressure on well into the second half.
“We didn’t want to come out sluggish,” Butler said. “Our main thing was to push the intensity, push the tempo, have it in our favor, not in theirs, at the start of the game.”
Javier Mojica led CCSU with 19 points, but it wasn’t nearly enough to become the first 16th-seed to win an NCAA tournament game, even with the stones given to the team by school president John Miller to symbolize David vs. Goliath.
The CCSU players laughed the day before the game when asked whether they’d consider rolling the stones onto the court in an effort to slow Oden down.
They might have wanted to send a few toward Butler and Lewis too.
With the Blue Devils double- and triple-teaming Oden, Butler and Lewis had plenty of wide-open looks from the outside and took full advantage. Five of Ohio State’s first six field goals were 3-pointers, and by the time the Blue Devils caught their breath, they were down 17-3.
“We didn’t go into the game saying, ‘Fellows, lets knock down a lot of 3s’,” said Ohio State coach Thad Matta. “It was there, they were open, and guys did a good job of knocking them down.”
CCSU eventually collected itself, but by then the Buckeyes and Oden had left little doubt about their dominance.
“Our biggest fear reared its head—that we would fall behind,” said CCSU coach Howie Dickenman. “I told the staff, the first three minutes of this game are the most important minutes of this game. Unfortunately, it happened when we didn’t want it to happen.”
Matta warned his players about overlooking the Blue Devils, who have just nine players on their roster, none of them taller than 6 foot 7. Matta was an assistant coach at Western Carolina in 1996 when the 16th-seeded Catamounts nearly upset Michigan State.
“I thought we came out with great energy, especially on defense,” Matta said. “The fact we made some shots early was good.”
Other than a slight swoon midway through the second half, the Buckeyes players seemed to be listening, particularly Oden and fellow freshman Mike Conley Jr., who hardly seemed rattled by the pressure that comes with being a top seed.
“We’re not worried about what people think or getting caught up in all the hype,” Oden said. “We just want to come out and do what we know how to do.”