Ohio State survives scare from Cornell, advances in NIT


COLUMBUS — Playing in its first game following the hiring of Jake Diebler as head coach, Ohio State received all it could handle from Cornell in the opening round of the NIT before outlasting the Big Red, 88-83, to reach the second round.

Jamison Battle and Roddy Gayle Jr. each scored 17 points to lead Ohio State, and Felix Okpara and Devin Royal chipped in with 16 and 13 points, respectively, in a balanced effort from the Buckeye offense.

Playing without leading scorer Chris Manon, Cornell didn’t skip a beat thanks to spirited efforts from Isiah Gray and Guy Ragland Jr., who combined for 36 points to nearly pull the upset. Nazir Williams added 14 points.

A dreadful offensive start put Ohio State in an early hole as the Buckeyes were just 4-23 from the field to trail Cornell 19-9 through the opening eight minutes.

Gayle’s three-pointer on the next possession, the first of the game for Ohio State, broke a streak of six consecutive misses for the Buckeyes and closed the deficit to 19-12. The shot sparked a run in which Ohio State connected on four of its next five shots to creep closer to Cornell.

Ohio State continued to stay hot from distance after an 0-6 start, and threes from Bruce Thornton on consecutive possessions capped a 10-0 run to give the Buckeyes their first lead since the 17-minute mark of the half at 26-24.

Thornton finished with nine points in the first half, all of which came from three, before suffering a sprained ankle early in the second half that sidelined him for the rest of the game.

Cornell struck right back, connecting on consecutive threes to quickly reclaim the lead, but Ohio State’s hot shooting hand couldn’t be cooled. Battle, who had been held in check for most of the half, finally broke through with his first two three-pointers of the night, again pushing Ohio State ahead 40-36 as the clock ticked under two minutes.

A jumper from Gayle, part of his team-high 10 first-half points, capped a 10-2 run for Ohio State to take a 44-38 lead into the break.

Ohio State dominated the offensive glass in the first half, outrebounding Cornell 11-0 for an 8-0 advantage in second-chance points.

Dale Bonner’s three pushed the lead to 51-44, the largest of the game for Ohio State, through the opening three minutes of the second half, but Cornell refused to go away.

Baskets by Ragland and Gray trimmed Ohio State’s lead to three with 16 minutes remaining in the game, and three minutes later, a three from Ragland gave the Big Red their first lead since the opening period.

The lead went back and forth as the two teams traded blows over the next six minutes, neither team ever leading by more than three points as the game headed toward a thrilling finish.

Gray pushed Cornell ahead by a point on a tough, contested finish at the rim with 3:14 to play, but he received a technical foul for taunting following the play. Battle made one of the two free throws as a result, immediately tying the game back up.

Ohio State retained possession following the technical foul, and Okpara was sent to the line for a pair of free throws, splitting the two attempts.

Battle extended the Ohio State lead to 79-76 on a jumper as the clock ticked towards two minutes to play, but as it did for most of the night, Cornell once again had an answer as Williams drilled a three on the ensuing possession to level the score.

Off a missed layup from Gayle, a problem that plagued Ohio State throughout the game, Gray sent Cornell to the brink of an upset when his layup gave the Big Red an 81-79 lead with a minute to play.

With its season on the line, Ohio State turned to its most consistent shooter all season as Battle drilled a three to recapture the lead with 43 seconds to play. Battle’s clutch shot proved to be the final of 17 total lead changes in the game.

In need of a bucket, Cornell came away without a shot as Gayle stole the ball from Williams, leading to a transition layup for Royal to increase the Ohio State lead to 84-81.

After getting the ball across the timeline, Cornell called a timeout with 23 seconds left to set up its final play. Out of the timeout, the Big Red elected to take a quick two and got a perfect look as Gray got to the rim without resistance.

Gray’s layup rimmed out, though, and Ohio State secured the rebound with 13 seconds remaining. Bonner was quickly fouled, and he calmly knocked down both free throws to increase Ohio State’s lead to 86-81.

Williams’ layup momentarily got Cornell back to within three with four seconds to play, but Evan Mahaffey’s two free throws iced the game for good as Ohio State secured an 88-83 win and a date in the second round of the tournament on Saturday.

Following the game, Diebler said of his team’s effort, “Cornell’s a really good team. We saw that on film and they play a unique style from the standpoint of their spacing and the amount of guys who can shoot, their cutting, and passing. On a quick turnaround and not a lot of time to prepare, I was really proud of how our guys made some adjustments throughout the game to ultimately get the win.”

Perhaps no adjustment was more critical for Ohio State than its ability to limit the backdoor cuts that Cornell routinely found success with for much of the game.

“Against them, you have to change your help (defense) and your gaps because if you get away from your man to protect what would be a normal gap, they’re just so good at cutting,” Diebler said. “So that was a big adjustment because it’s something we’ve gotten better at and focused on over time. And we practiced for a day and a shootaround to try and make that adjustment. As the game went on and got started, we reverted back to kind of what we’ve done really well. In this game, that opened up some lanes for them to cut.

“Our guys were able to adjust, though. I thought throughout the game, we got better at it. But that was a big difference, just our help position.”

With the win, second-seeded Ohio State advances to take on third-seeded Virginia Tech on Saturday. Ohio State will host the game, but a time and venue is still being determined.

Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.

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