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Big X overcomes early deficit, sneaks past bottom-seeded D2, 79-74.

After falling behind early, Big X hammered D2 in the paint in the second half, squeaking past their 24th-seeded opponent in the final minutes.

Photo Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

At long last, basketball returned Saturday afternoon as Ohio State legend Andrew Dakich’s Big X squad tipped off in the opening round of TBT 2020. As other major sports leagues begin to plan ways to return to playing while also paying close mind to the safety of their athletes, The Basketball Tournament is providing a blueprint of what that might look like.

TBT proceeding as planned (no fans, but all games televised in a single-elimination, 24-team tournament) is completely dependent on the health of the players and coaches. One positive COVID test eliminates the whole team. But on Saturday morning we got the best news we could possibly receive: every player and coach in the 24-team field was tested, and every single one tested negative. Play ball.

As the 9-seed, Big X fell just outside the top eight teams who all received a first-round bye. Their original opponent, the 24-seed Jackson (TN) Underdawgs, had to withdraw Wednesday night due to a positive COVID-19 test. They were replaced by D2, a squad of former Division-II players who already have a TBT win under their belt after beating the Bluegrass Boys (Kentucky alumni) in last year’s TBT opening round.

Big X rolled with a starting five of CJ Jackson and Jehyve Floyd as guards, Javon Bess and Vitto Brown as forwards and Nick Ward at center, while humble player-coach Dakich chose to start the game on the bench.

D2 went with Mike Davis, Taren Sullivan, Demario Mayfield, Wendell Davis, and Deshaun Thrower. Thrower, a two-sport athlete at Ferris State from 2016-2019, averaged 14 points per game for the Bulldogs his senior year as they marched to a 38-1 record and won the D-II national championship.

This one started out a bit clunky for the boys in green, as Big X scored five points in the first five minutes, and were down by 10 at the first media timeout with 2:57 remaining in the first quarter. They were 2-14 from the floor, missed all six of their three-pointers, and looked every bit like they hadn’t played organized basketball in several months.

By the end of the first quarter, the deficit had grown to nearly a dozen, as they went into the break down 23-12. Big X was shooting 22.2% from the floor, 11% from three, and were out-rebounded 19-10. Javon Bess was the lone bright spot with five early points.

Big X bent, but refused to break, starting the second quarter on an 8-0 run, bringing them back within four. Jamel Morris and Javon Bess both had seven in the first half, helping Big X pull within six by halftime, 36-30.

Their comeback was largely due to their stepping up on the boards, as they rebounded D2 15-7 in the second quarter to pull their rebound total to 25, compared to D2’s 26. Neither team was particularly crisp from deep, with both teams shooting below 30% from three in the first half.

Big X opened the second half with a very obvious strategy: pound the paint and take advantage of D2’s perimeter-oriented defense. It paid dividends early, with Nick Ward driving to the basket for a pair of buckets and CJ Jackson hitting an open corner three to pull Big X back within one, 39-38. But, while Ward driving to the basket tended to yield results, often time the result was a D2 foul, sending Ward to the free throw line. Ward ended 4-10 from the stripe, as he really struggled early from the line.

Big X took their first lead since 1-0 with 3:46 to go in the third quarter on a sharp slip pass from Jackson to Ward, who went up for a two-handed slam to give them a 46-45 lead. D2 responded quickly with two buckets of their own to regain the lead 49-46, and by the end of the third quarter, 24th-seed D2 held a two point lead, 59-57.

An LD Williams layup and a Khalil Iverson dunk on back-to-back possessions tied the game at 61 as they inched closer and closer to the Elam Ending, and then the teams traded threes to continue the back and forth affair, 64-64.

At the 3:43 mark left in the game, a foul was called on D2 and the Elam Ending was set. With Big X leading 70-69. the target score was set to 78 (eight points above the point total of the leading team, which in this case was Big X). Per the rules in TBT, the game clock shut off, and the first to reach 78 wins.

CJ Jackson hit a long two on the first possession of the Elam Ending period, and on the ensuing possession D2’s Kevin Capers, who scored 25, was fouled driving to the basket, and hit both free throws to cut the Big X lead back to one, 72-71. Big X’s Trevon Hughes then hit his second three of the game, extending the lead to 75-71, but D2’s Mike Davis punched right back with a layup to pull his squad within two.

After the two teams traded misses, Javon Bess was fouled heading to the basket on a euro-step that looked like it may have been one too many, but the call went their way. Bess sunk both free throws, making it 77-73 Big X. On the next possession, D2’s Kevin Capers was fouled as well, hitting one of his two free throws.

Ward grabbed the miss and immediately got the ball to Jackson, who missed a mid-range jumper but was able to grab his own long rebound. He tossed up a one-handed hook shot in traffic and it fell, eclipsing that 78 mark and delivering Big X a 79-74 win over the bottom-seeded D2 team, who gave them quite a scare.

Nick Ward led Big X with 18 points on 7-13 shooting and also pulled down five rebounds. Javon Bess also chipped in 11 points, but eight different players scored six or more points for the collecive Big Ten squad. Andrew Dakich scored three points on 100% shooting, hitting his only three-point attempt. D2 was led by Kevin Capers who scored 25 points on 8-11 shooting.

With the win, Big X moves on to face 8th-seeded Red Scare, the Dayton alumni team. The 8-9 match-up tips off Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. ET on ESPN.