CINCINNATI -- Things looked as bleak as a Midwestern winter for Ohio State early in yesterday's game against Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA Southeast Regional at Riverfront Coliseum.
The Huskies, perhaps the most talented ninth seed ever in the tournament, were sending storm warnings in the direction of the top-seeded, third-ranked Buckeyes. And for the second straight game, Jim Jackson had gone into a deep freeze.
But on the second day of spring, Ohio State and its star player came out of hibernation just in time. After trailing by as many as 12 points, the Buckeyes caught up, were ahead by halftime and went on to crush Connecticut, 78-55.
The victory moved Ohio State (25-5) into Friday's regional semifinals at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., against No. 4 seed North Carolina, which earlier had beaten Alabama, 64-55. But the Buckeyes' early shaky moments revived memories of last year's disappointment.
"I was really proud of the guys from the standpoint that we had been in this situation in other years in the tournament, where we got down early and didn't respond," said Ohio State coach Randy Ayers, recalling last year's one-sided loss to St. John's in the Midwest Regional semifinals at the Pontiac Silverdome. "I thought we did a great job responding. You hope to see that out of a veteran ballclub."
The Huskies had led 28-16 with 7:27 remaining in the first half, mainly due to a 19-10 rebounding edge and Jackson missing his first nine shots. But the Buckeyes picked up their defensive pressure on Connecticut's two big scorers, Chris Smith and Scott Burrell, then crashed the defensive boards.
Ohio State's other players picked up the slack while Jackson struggled. His first basket, with 2:22 left in the opening half, cut Ohio State's deficit to three, 30-27. His second finished a 15-2 run that gave the Buckeyes a 31-30 halftime lead. It continued into the second half, when they hit their first four shots. Three were three-pointers, two by Jackson.
"We talked a lot coming into the game about making them shoot over us," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who ended up benching Smith the last six minutes of the game because he was displeased with the senior guard's shot selection. "Then they hit three or four three-pointers and they put us in a hole."
"When you have open shots and you're not hitting them, it's self-explanatory," said Jackson, who finished seven of 26 for the game for a team-high 23 points, after going three of 13 in Thursday's opening-round win over Mississippi Valley State. "It's team game, and one individual is not going to win or lose it for you."
Ohio State, once considered a one-man team, has given Jackson plenty of help in this year's tournament. Yesterday it came from fellow seniors Chris Jent (14 points, six rebounds) and Mark Baker (13 points). And while the Buckeyes made 23 of 66 from the field, it was their defense that made the difference.
After its hot start, Connecticut (20-10) cooled off noticeably. Smith shot three of 15 for eight points, and Burrell was three of 13 for seven. Still, even after Burrell picked up his fourth personal, the Huskies had a chance.
"When they cut it down to six or five, we really picked up our pressure," said Baker. "Then we started making our shots and we didn't let them back into the game."
Holding a five-point lead with 11:33 remaining, a soft jumper by Jent started a run of 11 straight points by the Buckeyes. The final eight minutes were merely a show for the mostly pro-Ohio State crowd of 16,000.
When the Buckeyes began to dance and mug for the television cameras after the game, Ayers told them to straighten up.
"It was a lot of fun, but now it's back to business," said Lawrence Funderburke, who could smile after missing a couple of dunks. **6"We have a lot of work to do between now and Friday."