COLUMBIA, S.C. - Ohio State coach Thad Matta might have a second career ahead as a comedian.
Asked about the status of injured star forward Jared Sullinger, Matta quickly said the Buckeyes sophomore wasn't hurt, just yanked from the second-ranked Buckeyes' 74-66 win over South Carolina on Saturday for shoddy defense. "He had no problems, we just sent him to the showers," Matta told the room of stunned media.
Then Matta acknowledged the joke and Sullinger's bone bruise in his left foot. Ohio State's coach was just glad he could laugh a little bit since his leading scorer wasn't more seriously hurt.
Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger walks on crutches during the second half of Saturday’s game.
"We think he'll be fine," Matta said. "We're just happy there wasn't a break in there."
Still, Ohio State (10-1) showed it could succeed with Sullinger sidelined. Deshaun Thomas had a career-high 30 points and William Buford added 17 as Matta collected his 200th win in nine seasons with the Buckeyes.
"We had to get a little juice into us," Thomas said. "We made some mistakes on offense in the first half with turnovers and that's not us. So we just put a little fire and juice into us."
That looked as if it might be hard once Sullinger left the game. The Buckeyes were trailing 33-29 at the half and had appeared a step slower than the Gamecocks (4-6).
The Buckeyes used a 20-8 charge in the second half to take control.
Thomas got the run started with a jumper. Lenzelle Smith Jr. had a basket and a 3-pointer to put Ohio State in front for good, 41-37. Thomas added a 3-pointer and finished the surge with a short jump shot for a 49-43 lead.
The Buckeyes eventually built the lead to 11 points.
"Obviously, very happy with a road win," Matta said.
He's also happy about his place in Ohio State history. Matta, 200-58 with the Buckeyes, joined Fred Taylor (279 wins 1959-76) and Harold G. Olsen (254 from 1923-46).
Matta did not know if Sullinger would be ready for Lamar on Tuesday night. But even if Sullinger can't go, Thomas showed he's more than ready to lead Ohio State (10-1). The 6-foot-7 sophomore hit 13 of 16 shots and surpassed his previous high of 24 points set last season against North Carolina A&T.
South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said he was more worried about Buford's outside touch coming in and tailored the defense to let Thomas, a 51 percent shooter on the season, wind up with the ball more often.
"We put him in position by design to make those plays and to his credit, he made them," Horn said.
Malik Cooke led South Carolina with 21 points.
South Carolina cut things to 70-63 in the in the final minute. But Buford answered with a 3-pointer with 48.2 seconds to go to restore Ohio State's edge.
Ohio State figured to roll over a troubled Gamecocks club that had already lost to Elon and Tennessee State. Things started to change for the Buckeyes when Sullinger came up limping after getting kicked in the left foot on an early possession.
Trainers spent several minutes working on Sullinger's foot on the bench before he put his sneaker back on, talked with Matta and returned to action. But Sullinger was limping badly moments later after defending Carlton Geathers' drive with 10 minutes to go.
"We knew we had to pick it up defensively and offensively when Sullinger went out," Buford said. "We weren't playing to our basketball, playing to our level. We had great leaders and that helped us pick it up."
Ohio State was up 18-11 after William Buford hit a 3-pointer and made a breakaway basket off a South Carolina miss.
The Gamecocks, though, closed the half with a 22-11 run to lead 33-29 at the break. Malik Cooke had 10 points in the half, including a pair of baskets in the final two minutes as the Gamecocks moved in front.
South Carolina was also helped by a technical foul on Ohio State's Amir Williams, who taunted R.J. Slawson after a bucket.
The Buckeyes had hoped to build on the momentum with Sullinger back for his second straight game. He had missed two games with back spasms, including Ohio State's only loss of the season, 78-67, at Kansas last Saturday.
Earlier this week, Sullinger looked like his smooth, confident self with 12 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes of action in an 82-58 win at USC Upstate on Wednesday.
Results of the X-rays showed no fracture in the foot. Still, team spokesman Dan Wallenberg said it was too soon to know when Sullinger might play again. Ohio State faces Lamar on Tuesday and Miami of Ohio on Thursday before opening Big Ten Conference play against Northwestern on Dec. 28.
Matta had yet to speak with Sullinger about the injury. "They told me, 'He's OK.' I said, 'Fine, I'll go do this stuff" of coaching a highly-ranked basketball team.