CINCINNATI — For the first time all night, a roar that was 98 years in the making could finally be heard at Fifth Third Arena.
Ohio State was on campus, Cincinnati seemingly couldn’t make a basket and the Buckeyes were headed for a lopsided, party-spoiling win — until suddenly they weren’t. A 16-point lead with moments to play was down to four after Jarron Cumberland made a three-pointer with exactly a minute left, and the adversity that Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann has been seeking to test his team was being fully realized in live action.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
Then C.J. Jackson, the most experienced player on the roster, drove the right block and lofted a banked, running layup with 29 seconds left to seal the game. In its first game on Cincinnati’s campus since 1920 and in front of a sold-out crowd of 12,012, the Buckeyes took a 4-3 lead and never trailed again in a 64-56 season-opening win against the Bearcats.
“I’ve been working hard all summer for these types of moments and these types of games,” Jackson, the senior point guard, said.
The outcome was shaping up to be a laugher until Cincinnati (0-1) seized upon a late mental mistake by a first-time player. It was freshman Luther Muhammad who swished a three-pointer to give the Buckeyes a 55-39 lead with 5:23 left, but he was slapped with a technical foul as he headed back up the court for something he said.
That got the home crowd, which saw the Bearcats shoot a woeful 13.8 percent (4 of 29) during the first half, to believe a comeback was in the offing. A three-pointer by Kaleb Wesson with 2:54 left stemmed an 8-0 Cincinnati run and made it a 58-47 Ohio State lead, but it wasn’t until Jackson’s layup after he dribbled down the shot clock that the Buckeyes could exhale.
It made for a fitting finish to a long-awaited game, even if the build-up wasn’t exactly pretty.
“It was tremendous,” Holtmann said of the environment. “I’m sure it was not always aesthetically pleasing, two defensive teams that struggled a little bit offensively, so I get it, that it at times might not have been the most pleasing game to watch, but it was a heck of a competitive college basketball game of the second night of the season.”
Wesson finished with 15 points, Jackson had 13 and Muhammad had 11. The freshman made his first career start alongside sophomore Kyle Young, who had 10 points and eight rebounds — both career-highs. Young in particular saw extended playing time at center as the Buckeyes played extensively with three-guard lineups.
Holtmann said his conversation with Muhammad about the technical foul was both “interesting” and “one-sided,” but he defended the competitive spirit the freshman brings to the court.
“He was great,” he said. “Luther is a tremendous competitor and he recognized that he made a mistake in that situation and that’s all I wanted to communicate to him. That’s why we love him. That’s why we recruited him, because he brings a great competitive spirit.”
Ohio State (1-0) has won 16 straight regular-season games against in-state opponents dating to a Dec. 5, 1998, loss at Toledo. In the process, the Buckeyes handed Cincinnati its first loss in a home opener since an 86-75 loss to Belmont on Nov. 9, 2007. The Bearcats had won 52 of their last 53 home debuts.
Although he had never played in the city before, Wesson said he knew what to expect from the Bearcats.
“I just know that every time you come to Cincinnati, it’s always a rowdy game,” he said. “Cincinnati is known for being tough.”