Ohio State came into the game on Saturday against Minnesota needing another win against an RPI top 50 team to solidify its status as a single digit NCAA tournament seed. With games remaining against Penn State and Indiana, along with a depleted Michigan State team, the team doesn't really have many opportunities left to pick up decent wins. They only have one top-30 win, meaning these supporting top-50 wins take on a greater sense of importance as the Buckeyes finish their regular season.
Therefore, when Minnesota came out and punched Ohio State in the mouth in the first half, a sense of panic began to pervade the Schottenstein Center. The Buckeyes scored 18 points in the first half on 27 percent shooting with eight turnovers. Minnesota's zone had completely frustrated the Buckeyes now for 35 consecutive minutes going back to the end of the first Minnesota game.
But then, something happened. A switch flipped. A light bulb came on. The tables turned. All of everything happened. The Buckeyes played with an incredible sense of urgency in order to play their best half of the season. And it was all keyed by one man: Sam Thompson.
Thompson dropped 16 points in the second half on an impressive array of dunks, threes, free throws, and more dunks. Let's go ahead and check out Thompson's ridiculous run of play with a retro diary of the proceedings.
20:00-17:10: Ohio State down 28-18. Offense looks like a clogged toilet. Nothing good happening until a quick little 6-0 run brings Ohio State within six. Minnesota uses a timeout, and the water starts rising.
15:58: 30-26 Minnesota. Amir Williams blocks a shot leading to a run out. Aaron Craft gets the ball ahead to Thompson, knowing no one is in front of him, leading to this:
This will not be the last time Thompson's hand thunderously makes contact with the rim.
14:07-13:11: Ohio State scores seven more consecutive points en route to a 17-0 run. The Buckeyes now lead by five points.
12:30: After a made bucket, Shannon Scott pushes the ball and gets it ahead to Thompson, who is already behind the zone defense prior to it setting up.
Because he's behind the zone press, he has a pretty clear path to the rim, getting behind Maurice Walker, a little-used forward playing only because starting center Elliott Eliason had recently picked up his third foul. Walker is slow to react and cut off the baseline. Thompson goes under the hoop, absorbs the contact for the foul, and flips in the lay-up. After knocking down the free throw, the second half score is Thompson 5, Minnesota 4.
11:32: After a long offensive possession, Craft gets the ball at the top of the key with eight seconds left on the shot clock.
LaQuinton Ross sets a quick little slip screen so that Craft can collapse the defense into the middle. Austin Hollins in the back left corner of the defense doesn't buy it, and stays with Thompson. Craft kicks it out anyway after Mathieu recovers from the Ross screen to cut off his lane to the rim. Thompson uses his three inch height advantage on Hollins to shoot over him and knock down the contested three. When Thompson is knocking down contested threes from the corner, you know he's starting to feel it. Thompson 8, Minnesota 7, and things are starting to get ridiculous.
11:10: Minnesota jacks up an awful shot. Craft gets the rebound, and head mans the ball to Thompson.
Joey King at least beats him down the floor this time and tries to get set for a charge. But when you're Sam Thompson, have what appears to be a 72 inch vertical leap and can hang in the air for the same amount of time the Hindenberg did, I'm not sure it matters if King can beat you down the floor. Thompson hangs and adjusts in the air after leaping from outside of the paint, and flips in a left handed finger roll. So simple and so pretty. Also, I'm pretty sure he's only needed to dribble three times during this entire half. Normally that's a good thing for Sam. Thompson 10, Minnesota 7.
10:40: Next trip down, Minnesota misses another bad three pointer. Craft gets the ball up to Scott, who does this:
At this point, Minnesota has completely abandoned all defensive principles. No one stops the ball here until Eliason eventually realizes no one is stopping the ball so he steps up to the elbow. Once he steps ups to the elbow like that, the paint is completely vacated. It looks like Minnesota tried to match up in man here and just kind of forgot to pick up the ball, which means that once Scott gets inside the arc everyone just starts staring at him all at once. The backside is left wide open once Hollins forgets where Thompson is. Scott just throws it up and Thompson throws it down. In four consecutive possessions, Thompson scored 10 points on 4-4 shooting with a three, two tough layups, and that. 12-7 Thompson at this point, with no end in sight.
6:37: After some more porous defense by Minnesota, Ohio State has stretched the lead to 13. And Minnesota still refuses to guard the backside.
How Minnesota went from such strong defensive fundamentals early in this game to such disastrous ones in about an hour is absolutely beyond my capacity for rational thought. Look at how high their back line is! It's like they don't even care about protecting the rim. Walker is about 10 feet away from it. King doesn't have any inclination of either remembering to guard Thompson or of getting dunked on. Thompson has time to consider going up for it once, stop, take two steps back, legitimately point at the rim to Craft, then start running forward for the alley-oop. Thompson 14, Minnesota 9. We're just over 13 minutes into the half. I promise, this was just as ridiculous and unbelievable as it was happening live.
Eventually, Thompson scored two more points, and with 24 seconds left DeAndre Mathieu made a layup to put Minnesota ahead 18-16 in the half. But we were remarkably close to this being remembered as "The Game Where Sam Thompson Outscored Minnesota By Himself In One Half."
Really though, this is indicative of the Thompson we're beginning to see more often. Against Northwestern he was equally as strong in the second half before the scuffle at the end of the game overshadowed his performance. He's shooting the ball with more confidence, at 9-17 from behind the three point line since being moved into the starting lineup seven games ago. His ability to space the floor either vertically through rim runs or horizontally through his jump shot is going to be an essential part of Ohio State offense moving forward. Given that so much of Ohio State's offense generally occurs through Craft and Scott getting into the paint and creating open looks for others and for themselves, more space for them to do that is going to be extraordinarily important. Consistent offensive production is the major thing that is holding back the Buckeyes from a major tournament run.
Sam Thompson turning into a legitimate weapon will help to make that possible.