After a lackluster first half from both squads, only one team came to play in the second. Led by the superb play of Shannon Scott and Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes took the Gophers behind the woodshed, and may have saved their season in the process.
After a first half slowed down for both teams by fouls, turnovers and sloppy shooting, Ohio State needed a strong second half against Minnesota to avoid their fourth loss in five games. Using a quick run in the first minutes of the second half, the Buckeyes opened up a ten point lead and never looked back. Strong defense shut down any offensive effort the Gophers in the second half and allowed the Buckeyes to move from a 10 point lead, to a 20 point lead, and even as much as a 30 point lead for a few moments in the second half.
Deshaun Thomas overcame a slow first half to score 19, and Shannon Scott added 11 points as the Buckeyes not only got off the schneid against the Golden Gophers, but they leaped off with style and grace. It was a full team effort in the second half, and a return to the early season form the Buckeyes have only hinted at over the last few weeks, and might just be the catalyst needed as Ohio State enters easily the most difficult stretch of their season.
But what a way to kick off that stretch.
To say the first half of the game wasn't exactly run-and-gun, shoot-and-score offensive basketball, is more than charitable. But this is the Big Ten, where offense can be, frankly, offensive, and the Buckeyes and Golden Gophers were certainly guilty of that. But they certainly had help, as the first four minutes of the game were more or less defined by a tightly called contest by game officials Jim Burr and Mike Sanzere. A first half that wasn't all that chippy still earned both teams 11 fouls (six for the Buckeyes, five for the Gophers) in the first four minutes of play, including two apiece for Lenzelle Smith and Joe Carter.
If there was a highlight for the Buckeyes in the first half, however, it was the excellent defensive play by Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott. The two guards were everywhere on the floor in the first half, often causing poor shots and sometimes no shots at all by the pair of Andre and Austin Hollins for Minnesota. Two of the Gophers’ leading scorers could not get anything going in the first half, surely one of the goals set up pregame by Thad Matta
Containing the Minnesota perimeter offense didn't put any room on the score sheet between the two teams, however, as the Buckeyes also had trouble finding their offensive stride. Like their counterparts, Ohio State was too often forced into poor shots or turnovers, never taking advantage of their great perimeter defense, nor opening up a lead over six points. The gap between the teams was also closed by the surprising interior play of Minnesota’s Maurice Walker, who came into the game averaging just north of two points per game, and ended the half with seven total, controlling the play in the paint.
But the biggest factor in the entire first half was how, for 16 minutes, Deshaun Thomas was virtually invisible. Thomas rarely got touches on the offensive side of the court, and was shut down by Trevor Mbakwe and senior Rodney Williams. Without the scoring presence of Thomas, all but a necessity in every Ohio State win, the Buckeyes continued to struggle.
Thomas must have sensed this, as he came out of the first half’s final media timeout with an urgency that was missing to that point. The Big Ten’s leading scorer would begin to make his presence felt to close out the first half, converting a driving layup while drawing a foul, and scoring on the next Ohio State possession, putting the Buckeyes up five, 26-21 with under a minute left in the half. After an Andre Hollins step back jumper brought the Gophers within three with five seconds to go, Aaron Craft ended the half doing Aaron Craft things, hitting a long three as the buzzer wailed in The Schott. Tubby Smith urged the officials for a travel, but his request was left wanting, as the Buckeyes took a 29-23 lead into the locker room.
There were plenty of positives in the first half, but the negatives for both teams shined much brighter: though Minnesota’s leading scorers had been quieted down in the first half, Ohio State struggled to put away a team they were out-playing for the majority of the half. And while the Buckeyes weren't content with just a six point halftime lead, it certainly could have been a six point lead for Minnesota if a few baskets had fallen for the Gophers instead of clanking off the iron.
With the Buckeye faithful hoping for a better second half from all parties (officials included), Ohio State would open the half and take their first double digit lead of the game, riding the talented shoulders of Deshaun Thomas. Thomas would open the second half scoring eight of the Buckeyes first 10 points, including sandwiching a Smith layup with a pair of threes from the corner, pushing the Ohio State lead to nine, 37-28, with just over 16 minutes to play.
From there, it was the Ohio State defense that made up for interior lapses in the first half, and allowed the Buckeyes to pull away from the Gophers. With the combination of turnovers and defensive stops, the Minnesota offense was left without a bucket for a nine minute stretch, with Craft, Thomas and Evan Ravenel locking down the Gopher scorers. The Buckeye offense would also shy away from their own first half lapse, going on a 12-0 run and opening an 18-point lead, highlighted by Ravenel slamming home his own steal and sending the Buckeyes to a 49-31 lead with 7:57 left to play.
From there, the Buckeyes could have coasted to an easy victory, but after the embarrassment that was the Wisconsin game, these Buckeyes were not taking their feet off the accelerator. Shannon Scott would add six more points, while LaQuinton Ross would drain a long three and a tough, contested layup and foul to push the lead to 25, 62-37, with 3:40 to go.
The last four minutes of the game looked a lot like the 10 minutes before it, with Minnesota creating next to nothing on offense, and Ohio State looking unstoppable in all phases. Minnesota only managed two field goals in the last five minutes (and scored just 22 in the entire second half), as the Buckeyes were in full celebration mode. Fan favorite Amedeo Della Valle would knock down long threes to loud cheers from the crowd, and Ohio State would watch the clock run out with a 26 point lead and a 71-45 victory.
There is plenty of work left for the Buckeyes to do, including tough road trips to Indiana and Northwestern, and return matchups against Michigan State and Illinois. But for tonight, Ohio State looked like one of the conference's best teams. If they can hold this form up over the next two weeks, they will be a very tough team to beat in March.