CLEVELAND — The only thing difficult to discern Sunday night at Quicken Loans Arena was which Ohio State player put on the most impressive performance during the Buckeyes’ 98-66 demolition of George Mason in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
Was it senior forward David Lighty’s 7-for-7 shooting night from behind the 3-point arc? Could it have been freshman guard Aaron Craft’s career-high 15 assists off the bench? Or maybe it was freshman center Jared Sullinger’s bullying performance under the basket that led to 18 points and eight rebounds?
While the debate has merit, there was no arguing about the Buckeyes’ dominance.
“A game like tonight, we almost have to play a perfect game,” George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. “We have to play at the highest level of our capability, and we’ve got to find a way to try and make them play below their capability.
“They don’t have one or two players with good skills. They’ve got an entire team with offensive skill sets that are very impressive.”
So impressive that Ohio State is headed to its third Sweet 16 appearance in its last four NCAA Tournaments. The No. 1-seeded Buckeyes will face No. 4 Kentucky in Newark, N.J., on Friday.
“It’s pretty hard to guard this basketball team with all the weapons we have,” Sullinger said. “I don’t know what you do when you’re taking notes on how to guard us because we have so many weapons.
“I guess that’s on (our opponents).”
The problem for George Mason wasn’t just that Ohio State had so many weapons. It was that those weapons had been cleaned, fully loaded and were firing on all cylinders.
Beside the outstanding games of Lighty, Craft and Sullinger, the Buckeyes also got 13 points and four 3-pointers from senior Jon Diebler, 18 points and five rebounds from junior guard William Buford and seven points in just 13 minutes off the bench from freshman forward Deshaun Thomas.
“I’ve seen a lot of (big runs),” Lighty said. “But every time I looked up everybody was hitting a jumper or a three or something. Our speed and our pace and us sharing the ball … it’s unbelievable.”
The Patriots are believers. Kentucky should probably take note, too.
During a weekend that saw No. 1 seed Pittsburgh ousted, and No. 1 seed Duke and No. 2 seed North Carolina come within a basket of the same fate, annihilations like the two Ohio State put on its opponents in Cleveland should send a clear message.
“We’re on a mission … it says we’re on a mission,” senior center Dallas Lauderdale said. “That was a wake-up call for us. We were in the hotel, watching that (Pitt) game and Butler played the way they did … anybody’s great at this point in the season.”
The mission was briefly delayed Sunday night when the Patriots used quick tempo, some good shooting and a short Ohio State cold spell to take an 11-2 lead less than four minutes into the game.
It was the only feel-good moment George Mason and its fans would get to enjoy, as Ohio State roared back with a 10-0 run to erase the deficit, then outscored the Patriots 50-15 the rest of the first half.
Lighty was instrumental in turnaround, hitting one big 3-pointer after another as the crowd went crazy and the shoulders on the Patriots players drooped lower and lower with every shot.
The Buckeyes also used a great inside-outside display against George Mason, following nearly every big three by Lighty with a powerful dunk by Sullinger or Lauderdale, or a spinning drive for a layup by Buford.
Craft took time off from passing to hit a couple midrange jumpers, and Diebler and Buford finally joined the long-range attack to keep pushing Ohio State further and further away from George Mason.
The offensive frenzy didn’t stop until Buford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Ohio State a 52-26 lead at the half.
“You can play well for a half, but to have that kind of separation in the NCAA Tournament is kind of surprising to me,” Larranaga said. “I thought we’d be able to score more. When they held us to 26 points in the first half and they had 52 … like, wow … very, very impressive.”
Larranaga won’t be looking forward to another meeting with the Buckeyes anytime soon. He was asked if any team had ever taken it to him like Ohio State did Sunday night during his coaching career.
“Yep … I think it was Ohio State in 1986,” he said. “We went to St. John Arena with my Bowling Green team, and they had us down 53-17 at halftime.”
Contact Shaun Bennett at (440) 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.