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Perfect at Home: Buckeyes bury Gophers, stay unbeaten in Columbus

After an absolutely brutal first half, the Buckeyes found their footing and stayed undefeated at home this season.

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

After splitting two roads games last week, No. 18 Ohio State (16-6, 9-4) returned home on Tuesday night to face Minnesota (12-11, 3-11) hoping to start a new winning streak and keep their thin Big Ten title hopes alive. With their next three games — and six of their final eight — coming at home, Ohio State has a real chance to shake up the B1G standings down the stretch, if — and only if — they take care of business.

Last time out, the Buckeyes went up to Ann Arbor and dispatched their most hated rival 68-57. E.J. Liddell had a game-high 28 points and Cedric Russell tied his season-high with 12 points as the Buckeyes outlasted a tired Michigan team in the second half. The 57 points they allowed to Michigan were the third-fewest they’ve allowed to TTUN to score against them in the past 70 years.

The Golden Gophers were coming off of a 76-70 win Saturday night over 11th-place Penn State at the Barn. It was only their third conference win of the season, but all things considered, first-year head coach Ben Johnson has done a fine job with a team made up primarily of transfers. Before the season began, there were some people (like myself) giving Minnesota a real chance to go 0-20 in conference play.

With Meechie Johnson still unavailable due to an ankle injury — and Justice Sueing continuing to rehab a lower abdomen/groin injury — Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann went with the same lineup he used at Michigan: Jamari Wheeler, Malaki Branham, Eugene Brown, Liddell, and Zed Key. In his first career start Saturday night, Brown pulled down a team-high eight rebounds.

Minnesota’s Johnson rolled with a starting five of Payton Willis, Luke Loewe, E.J. Stephens, Jamison Battle, and Eric Curry. Willis has scored 20 or more points four times this season. Curry missed the first meeting between these two teams on Jan. 27 with an ankle injury.

Ohio State was able to get open for quite a few good looks early on, and led 12-10 at the under-12 timeout despite a few open misses. Those 12 points came on makes from five different Buckeyes, while six of Minnesota’s 10 early points came from Battle.

The Gophers went on an extended cold streak that allowed Ohio State to take a four-point lead, but the turnover bug bit the Buckeyes in a bad way towards the end of the first half. A half-dozen giveaways over a five-minute period let Minnesota back into the game, and the underdog Gophers went into the halftime break with a two-point lead, 25-23. Battle had 8 points and 5 rebounds in the first half. Brown, Branham, Liddell, and Russell each had four points for the Buckeyes in a balanced, but inefficient, first-half for the Buckeyes.

Ohio State shot 40.7 % from the floor, but turned the ball over eight times and only hit one of their eight three-point attempts. Minnesota was 33.3% overall in the first half and was 4-of-11 from downtown.

Well, maybe Holtmann promised the fellas a pizza party at halftime if they came back and won the game; maybe he threw a chair; maybe he did both! But whatever he did, his Buckeyes came out in the second half with their figurative hair on fire, hitting six of their first seven shots to open the half — none of which came from Liddell — and took a 40-32 lead at the first media timeout at the 13:46 mark.

Wheeler and Branham each knocked down a pair of threes in the opening minutes of the second stanza.

Ohio State trailed for exactly 31 seconds of the second half, taking the lead on Wheeler’s bomb to open the half and never looking back. Liddell knocked down two free throws with five minutes remaining to give Ohio State their largest lead of the night at 56-40, and the Gophers were buried. When the final horn sounded, the Buckeyes had wrapped up a 70-45 victory inside the Schottenstein Center.

Liddell led Ohio State with 16 points and 10 rebounds, registering his sixth double-double of the season. Wheeler and Branham both scored in double digits as well for the Buckeyes. Loewe led Minnesota with 12 points on 5-9 shooting.

If you weren’t able to catch tonight’s late-night battle between the Gophers and Buckeyes, here are a few of the key moments that carried Ohio State to their second straight win over a team that starts with the letter M:

Battle on the boards early

Battle — Minnesota’s leading scorer — let it rip from deep early, knocking down two three-pointers over the first five minutes of the game to help give his Gophers an early 10-8 lead at the first media timeout. The 6-foot-7 Minnesota native came into this game averaging 16.7 points per game. He finished with 11 points on 4-13 shooting.

Wheeler picks up two early fouls

Just like Saturday, Wheeler picked up two fouls in the first three minutes of today’s game, sending him to the bench early in favor of Russell. He played exceptionally better in the second half, scoring 12 points in the final 20 minutes and finishing with 14.

Minnesota put on ice

After taking a 10-8 lead at the 15:42 mark of the first half, the Gophers went on to hit just one of their next 11 shots, allowing Ohio State to reclaim the advantage. Russell, Liddell, Kyle Young, and Wheeler all had buckets over the next eight minutes, giving Ohio State a 17-13 lead at the under-8 media timeout.

Buckeye bakery!

After struggling mightily with turnovers early in the season, Ohio State appeared to have tightened it up as of late, giving the ball away fewer than 10 times in each of its past four outings. On Tuesday, however, the turnover bug bit early and often in the first half.

After taking a 17-13 lead, Ohio State proceeded to turn the ball over six times over the next 5:26 of game time, handing the ball back to Minnesota and allowing them to go on an 8-0 run. Treyton Thompson’s layup with 4:35 remaining in the half gave the Gophers a 21-17 lead.

Wheeler starts the second half with a bang

On Ohio State’s first offensive possession of the second half, the Buckeyes were still down and absolutely nothing was working — until it was.

The ball was swung around the perimeter several times with no luck. They worked it in to Key below the basket, but the Minnesota zone collapsed in on him.

With two seconds remaining on the shot clock, the ball got back to Wheeler near the top of the key, who hoisted up a desperation triple and canned it.

Ohio State took a 26-25 lead just moments into the second half.

Zed on both ends

With Ohio State leading 29-27 just three minutes into the second half, Key was switched onto Battle with eight seconds left on the shot clock. Despite it being a less than favorable matchup for the bulkier Key, he was able to wall up Minnesota’s leading scorer in front of the Gopher bench, not allowing him to shoot or pass.

Key kept Battle busy for the entire eight seconds, forcing a turnover via a shot clock violation. On the very next offensive possession, Key hit his patented hook shot to give the Buckeyes a four-point lead, 31-27.

Key would finish with nine points, seven rebounds, two blocks, and 2 steals in 23 minutes.

Russell’s swipe ‘n’ score extends the lead

Leading 52-38 with 7:46 remaining in the game, Key swatted the ball lose from Curry, and Russell zoomed in to clean it up. The Louisiana transfer scooped up the loose ball and took it to the other end, scoring on the fast break and giving Ohio State their biggest lead of the game 54-38.

It was Key’s second steal of the game, and Russell’s layup made him 3-3 shooting the ball inside the three-point line on the night (vs. 0-3 from outside).

Russell would later hit a three-pointer to give him nine points and three rebounds over 23 minutes.

Liddell’s sixth double-double

The game was out of reach by this point, but with his two free throws and 10th rebound moments later, Liddell registered his sixth double-double of the season — tops among all Buckeyes this year. He finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 assists.

Up Next:

No. 18 Ohio State (16-6, 9-4) continues their home stand on Saturday afternoon against Iowa (17-7, 7-6) at 2:30 pm E.T. This game was originally scheduled to be played on Feb. 3, but mechanical issues with the Hawkeyes’ plane kept them grounded and they were unable to make the trip. The Hawkeyes have won three games in a row, including bombing a season-high 110 points on Maryland last Thursday evening.

This will be the only regular-season meeting between the two teams, and it will be nationally televised on FOX.