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Moments that mattered: Ohio State’s slightly concerning (but still a win), win over Merrimack

The Buckeyes were able to emerge victorious Wednesday night, but it wasn’t comfortable, and I feel gross for watching all of it.

NCAA Basketball: Merrimack at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Undefeated no more, Ohio State (2-1) returned to the hardwood Wednesdy evening, looking to get back on track after a tight home loss to No. 13 Texas A&M on Friday night. While on paper the Merrimack Warriors (2-2) looked like a far inferior opponent compared to either of the Buckeyes’ first two foes, head coach Chris Holtmann noted last week that it does run a primarily zone defense, which will give his team an opportunity to improve after struggling against Oakland’s zone last week.

Merrimack lost its first game of the season to Vermont, before winning games against Division-III Worcester State and Maine. They came into the game as the No. 312 team in the nation according to KenPom, out of 362. If you were curious, Merrimack College, with an enrollment of 4,229, is located in North Andover, Massachusetts.

With leading scorer Jordan Derkack out with a left leg injury, eighth-year head coach Joe Gallo went with a starting five of Adam Clark, Jaylen Stinson, Devon Savage, Samba Diallo, and Bryan Etumnu. Of those five, only Savage and Diallo averaged six or more points per game last season. Chris Holtmann countered with Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle, Jamison Battle, Evan Mahaffey, and Felix Okpara — the same five that’ve been used in each of the first two games.

It wasn’t the prettiest first few minutes, but Ohio State did jump out to a 16-7 lead by the under-12 media timeout. The Buckeyes actually did a good job early throwing the ball to the elbow and below the basket to get better looks, but just blew a few easy shots. Roddy Gayle started the game off with back-to-back triples, and after that the Buckeyes almost exclusively operated below the basket for the next six to seven minutes.

The Warriors went on a 12-4 run over a five-minute stretch to get back within four points at one point, but Ohio State held on and went to the locker room up 35-29. It was an uninspiring first half five days after nearly knocking off a top-25 team at home. Gayle was superb in the first half with 13 points on 5-6 shooting, but his nine teammates combined to shoot just 4-22 for 22 points. Devon Savage led the Warriors with eight first-half points.

Truthfully, Ohio State probably would’ve been losing this game at halftime if Merrimack didn’t foul 14 times and send the Buckeyes to the line 20 times in the first 20 minutes.

After their lead shrunk to just four points a few minutes into the second half, Ohio State responded with an 8-0 run, capped off by a Bruce Thornton-to-Roddy Gayle inbounds slam, to push their lead back to 43-31 with 14 minutes left in the game. The Buckeyes started to pick up the pace and try to make Merrimack look vulnerable in transition, and it worked enough to give OSU some breathing room.

Ohio State extended its lead to 59-43 with 7:24 left in the game thanks to a Jamison Battle three, which also represented the largest lead of the evening. The Buckeyes mostly avoided shooting from the perimeter in this one — whether that was a conscious effort after struggling so badly, or because they didn’t want to shoot over the zone, we may never know. But second-half triples from Gayle, Battle, and Bruce Thornton all helped take Ohio State’s uncomfortably small lead and push it to an insurmountable one in the closing minutes.

By the time all was said and done, the Buckeyes had wrapped up a win that looked easy in the box score but was anything but in real life, 76-52. They were led by Gayle, who had 20 points to go along with five rebounds and three assists. Battle and Key also scored double digits with 13 and 11, respectively. Savage led Merrimack with 20 points on 7-13 shooting.

If you weren’t around tonight to catch Ohio State’s win over reigning NEC champ Merrimack in front of dozens of adoring fans at the Schott, here are few of the moments that mattered:

“Hot Rod” (2007) starring Roddy Gayle Jr.

Gayle started the season by missing his first seven three-point attempts of the year, which was a little concerning considering the heater he went on in the Big Ten Tournament last season. He was able to finally take the lid off the basket on Wednesday night, knocking down back-to-back three-pointers on consecutive possessions to start the game and put Ohio State up 6-0 early.

Gayle continued to stir the drink throughout the evening, and wound up leading Ohio State in scoring for the first time this season with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting in 34 minutes. He also had five rebounds, three assists, and turned the ball over three times.

Devin Royal’s first collegiate basket

Devin Royal didn’t attempt a shot against Oakland and only took one shot against A&M, but there were expectedly more opportunities on Wednesday for the local product. After missing two good looks below the basket in the first half, Royal dropped in a layup off the glass with 8:19 left in the first half to give Ohio State a 23-11 lead. He then scored again in the second half, finishing with four points on 2-of-4 shooting in six minutes.

Merrimack’s 7-0 run

A 7-0 run isn’t huge and typically isn’t noteworthy, but in a game played at a snail’s pace like tonight’s, it makes a difference. After Royal’s bucket with 8:19 left in the first half made it 23-11, the Warriors went on a 7-0 run over the next 1:27 to get right back into the game. Clark had two of the baskets, and his second layup during the run, with 6:52 to go, got the Warriors back within five points.

Don’t play with your food!

There was no reason for Ohio State to even entertain Merrimack Wednesday night. With all due respect to the Warriors, they are a sub-300 team in KenPom, and their only double-digit scorer was out Wednesday night.

Still, Ohio State refused to put them away for the first 30 minutes. Merrimack started the second half by hitting just one of their first five shots and turning the ball over twice, giving the Buckeyes a prime opportunity to push their lead to double digits. Instead, Ohio State turned the ball over on three of their first six possessions to start the second half, and actually watched their lead shrink to four points after about three minutes of play in the second half.

10-0 run pushes lead to double digits

Ohio State came out flat in the second half, allowing Merrimack to cut their lead to four points, 35-31. But after Etumnu’s layup at the 19:26 mark, Merrimack didn’t score for over seven minutes. The Buckeyes outscored them 10-0 during that period, taking a 45-33 lead by the under-12 media timeout.

Part of that 10-0 run was a flashy inbounds alley-oop from Bruce Thornton to Roddy Gayle, as one sophomore found the other for a big dunk that gave us shades of Aaron Craft to Sam Thompson nearly a decade ago.

Battle, Thornton seal the deal from real far away

Merrimack closed the lead to just six points with 9:24 left in the game, but the Buckeyes responded with a 16-0 run to essentially put this one away. During that run, Battle and Thornton took turns hitting three’s on back-to-back possessions, and then two possessions later Battle hit another — his second of the game and second in the last 2:20 — to stretch the lead to 59-43. His second was a logo three that he hoisted from about where Defiance would be on the Ohio outline at centercourt.

Ohio State didn’t take a ton of three-pointers in this game, but did finish 8-14 (57.1%) from the beyond the arc. Battle finished with 13 points on 4-12 shooting, including 2-4 from beyond the arc, in 33 minutes. Thornton finished with eight points, six assists, and two steals over 29 minutes.

Up Next:

Ohio State (2-1) gets three days off and will return to action Sunday afternoon against MAC cellar-dweller Western Michigan (0-3). The Broncos finished last in the MAC last season, and that’s where they sit right now as well. WMU is the No. 307 team in the country, according to KenPom.

The Buckeyes’ game against Western Michigan tips off at 4:00 p.m. Sunday and will be broadcast on BTN.