LEXINGTON, Ky. - While being smothered to the limit of the shot clock on its first two possessions, Central Connecticut was pretty sure that wasn't someone familiar like Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart, or Mount St. Mary's defending the basket here last night in a first round NCAA tournament game.
Then, after Greg Oden seemed to sweep the ball off the rafters at venerable old Rupp Arena, then spike it through in one motion to give top-ranked Ohio State an eight-point lead just three minutes into the game, the Blue Devils were certain.
This was an opponent unlike anything they had seen this season.
"I think we were excited, nervous - this was the biggest crowd we'd ever played in front of - and that's the number one team in the country we're playing," Central Connecticut senior Javier Mojica said after the Buckeyes beat his team 78-57.
On three of its first five possessions, Central Connecticut was forced to throw a desperation heave in the general direction of the rim after the Buckeyes quashed their offense and ate up the shot clock.
"They applied great pressure, but that's what they do," Mojica said.
At the other end, the Blue Devils were preoccupied with collapsing on the seven-footer Oden every time the ball came into the post, but the Buckeyes (31-3) inflicted damage early with four 3-pointers from Jamar Butler and Ron Lewis as they surged out to a 14-3 advantage just five minutes into the game.
Lewis said that quick start was in Ohio State's plan.
"That was really important," Lewis said. "We didn't want to come out sluggish. We wanted to push the tempo, and have it in our favor."
Central Connecticut (22-12) took a timeout to regroup at that point, but had another shot clock violation coming out of the break, and found itself in a 17-3 hole less than seven minutes into the game.
"I thought we came out with great energy, and I think that set the tone," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "We got off to a great start, both offensively and defensively."
The Blue Devils worked back within 10 at 19-9 when Mojica, the player of the year in the Northeast Conference this season, hit a 3-pointer from the wing. After he cut it to eight with a steal and a fastbreak layup, Ohio State flexed its might again.
Oden set up near the basket and pounded down a dunk, and then the Buckeyes worked another shot clock violation out of Central Connecticut. After a floater in the lane from Mike Conley, Jr., a lob dunk by Lewis, and a deep 3-pointer from Daequan Cook, the Buckeyes were up 32-17 with three minutes left in the half.
Cook then hit another triple just before the horn to give the Buckeyes a 38-17 lead at the half. Butler said Central Connecticut's zone defense allowed Ohio State to find open shots from outside.
"We got in the paint, found the open man, and then we knocked the shots down," Butler said. The Buckeyes were 11-of-20 on 3-pointers in the game.
"We didn't have a lot of tape on Central Connecticut, but we felt like they may try and zone us, but we didn't go into the game saying we were going to knock down a lot of threes," Matta said. "They were just kind of there. They were there, they were open, and guys knocked them down."
Butler nailed a pair of triples in the opening sequence of the second half to push the lead to 46-22. The Blue Devils put together a 9-0 run midway through the second half, but that only got them within 57-41.
"Our biggest fear coming into the game was that we would fall behind," Central Connecticut coach Howie Dickenman said. "The first few minutes of this game were the most important. We were sloppy in the first half, and I'm going to say it's nerves, but I watched these guys battle, and I watched them not quit."
After Oden pounded down two straight dunks, the Ohio State lead was 21 with six minutes left in the game. Oden had 19 points and 10 rebounds, while Butler added 17 and Lewis 13 for the Buckeyes.
Matta said he did not change his team's approach as it moved into the NCAA tournament, and even his freshmen showed no signs of jitters on this big stage.
"They looked exactly like they looked for the 30-some games before this," Matta said. "I don't think now is the time to change."
The Buckeyes meet Xavier, which defeated BYU 79-77, in the second round tomorrow, with a trip to the regional in San Antonio going to the winner of that game.
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