COLUMBUS, Ohio — So much for the undercard.
Now No. 3 Ohio State must take on the heavyweights in the main events remaining on its schedule.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. scored 17 points and LaQuinton Ross added 15 to lead the Buckeyes past overmatched and undermanned Louisiana-Monroe 71-31 on Friday night.
An announced crowd of 18,534 didn’t see much drama after the Buckeyes rolled to a big lead — scoring the first 12 points of the game and the first 15 of the second half — to turn it into a landslide. Many left before the end.
Not even the players really enjoy playing such lopsided games.
“The better competition, the more exciting the games are for us,” Ross said. “Sometimes during the non-conference as you play some of these teams that are not as good as you are, you actually play down to (their level). That’s not good for teams. That’s not what you’re supposed to do. Definitely when we come out in Big Ten play, it’s going to be teams that are just as good as us and we’re going to have to play better.”
Amedeo Della Valle chipped in with 14 points for the Buckeyes (13-0), who have won their first 13 games in a season for the fifth time in school history (1961, ‘62, ‘91 and 2011).
Ohio State opens Big Ten play on Dec. 31 at Purdue. After not facing a ranked opponent up to now, the Buckeyes will be tested by the likes of No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 5 Michigan State, No. 22 Iowa and the rest of the conference’s bullies.
“We tell our guys, ‘You’ve got 18 battles coming up (and) the war’s decided in March,’” coach Thad Matta said. “Just from the standpoint of the challenges that lie ahead, that’s what guys sign up for when they come to play at Ohio State. There’s going to be some tremendous battles every night we take the floor.”
The Buckeyes won each of their first 11 games by double digits. They had far from an easy time of it in their most recent game.
Down by eight points in the last minute, they went on a 14-3 run over the last 48 seconds to beat Notre Dame 64-61 on Dec. 21 at Madison Square Garden in the finale of the BlackRock Gotham Classic. In that game they scored 17 points in the first 19:12 of the second half and 14 in those last decisive 48 seconds.
“We got a win but we didn’t execute and we didn’t do the things that we needed to do in the Garden,” Smith said. “Today was about establishing ourselves. We know what’s getting ready to come down the pipeline starting in the Big Ten. ... So we just wanted to come out strong, get back to our system and what works for us, and being on top of our game.”
Smith said if the non-conference season did anything, it marked the Buckeyes as a team that no opponent will overlook.
“Everybody else is watching now,” he said. “Everybody can’t wait to knock us off in the Big Ten.”
Friday night’s game was a mismatch of epic proportions.
Jayon James led the Warhawks (3-5), who have lost their last four, with eight points. They hit just 19 percent of their shots from the field (10 of 54) and 17 percent on 3-pointers (3 of 18).
Ohio State came into the game fifth in the nation in scoring defense (55.9 points) and 13th in field goal percentage defense (.379).
They went a long way toward padding those numbers while holding the Warhawks to 20 points on 23.3 percent shooting in the opening half.
The game was never in doubt after Ohio State bolted to a 12-0 lead in the opening 4 minutes.
The Warhawks didn’t score until Tylor Ongwae hit a baseline drive at the 15:34 mark.
Ross got things going early with eight of the first 12 points, hitting his only two attempts from the field, including his lone 3, and adding a perfect 3 for 3 at the free throw line.
Up 41-20, the Buckeyes opened the second half the same way they did the first — on a run.
Amazingly, ULM coach Keith Richard benched his starters at halftime and did not play them at all in the final 20 minutes.
“The only way to make things happen is by playing hard. I’m about tired of it. It’s been going on at certain times during different games,” Richard, who didn’t attend a postgame news conference, said in a statement issued by the sports information office. “Those guys just aren’t going to play. We’re not in a good place right now obviously after the last two ball games, mentally or physically.”
The Warhawks finally ended a 15-0 Ohio State run and a scoring drought of 9:50 when Chinedu Amajoyi hit two free throws at the 10:40 mark for their first points of the second half.
It was all about getting ready for the next game for the Buckeyes.
“I wouldn’t say we got done everything we needed to get done but we definitely got better every time we stepped on the floor,” Smith said, analyzing Ohio State’s first 13 games. “Just looking back to how we started the season until now, we’ve come a long way. I know we still have a long way to go.
“That’s what we need to work to, getting ready for this game coming up on the 31st.”