It’s tough to categorize any particular Big Ten game as a “must-win” in early January, but following a disheartening 80-73 loss to Maryland last weekend, Thursday night’s game against the last-place Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-8, 1-4) certainly qualified as one.
The Buckeyes (10-6, 2-3) were viewed as one of the favorites to win the Big Ten just one week ago. Three losses later, they’re probably closer to the NCAA Tournament bubble than they are to cutting down nets at the end of the season. Beating a terrible Minnesota team that’s in the middle of a rebuild wasn’t going to change that, but losing to that same Minnesota team could certainly make things much more dire.
Thus, a “must-win” game.
And wouldn’t you know it, things are suddenly much, much worse! Things started out slippery for Ohio State against the Golden Gophers Thursday night and never quite got back on track, as Minnesota pulled out their first Big Ten win of the season, 70-67.
With Zed Key still dealing with a shoulder injury he suffered against Purdue last week, Gene Brown drew his first start of the season. Alongside Brown was Bruce Thornton, Sean McNeil, Brice Sensabaugh, and Justice Sueing. Second-year head coach Ben Johnson rolled with a starting five of Taurus Samuels, Ta’Lon Cooper, Joshua Ola-Joseph, Jamison Battle, and Dawson Garcia.
The Buckeyes were finding open looks early on but missed several bunnies which prevented them from taking control early. Minnesota took an 11-6 lead into the first media timeout at the 14:21 mark, with four different Gophers scoring over the first five-plus minutes. Sensabaugh in particular struggled early on, hitting one of his five shots over the first five minutes.
The Golden Gophers only shoot 33% as a team from long range, but to their credit, they knocked a handful down early. Minnesota used most of their early possessions up by swinging the ball around the perimeter until someone finally took a shot, and it worked for a while! Minnesota held a seven-point lead at the under-12 timeout, 19-12. The Gophers knocked down three of their first six triples — one each from Battle, Cooper, and Samuels. Those numbers eventually came back to level, and Minnesota finished the game 7-22 (31.%) from three-point range.
Coach liked that one! @LatrellT313 x @GopherMBB pic.twitter.com/yA61ztXVGW— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) January 12, 2023
Minnesota was not able to pull away, but they also didn’t loosen the grip they had over the Buckeyes in the waning moments of the first half, as they held a 33-29 lead at the under-four timeout. Garcia was proving to be especially troublesome for the Buckeyes, as he was pivoting and moving quicker than both Okpara and the slightly-compromised Key.
Dawson Garcia is on fire. @Dawson23lee x @GopherMBB pic.twitter.com/bBb2jRKLuF— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) January 13, 2023
McNeil was fouled shooting a three-pointer with 59 seconds to go in the half and knocked down all three free throws to tie the game briefly, but Cooper hit a fading baseline shot with two seconds remaining on the shot clock to retake the lead, 37-35. That was our halftime score as well, with the last-place Gophers heading to the locker room with a lead. Garcia had 12 first-half points for Minnesota. McNeil had nine first-half points for OSU.
Ohio State took their first lead in over 26 minutes with Brice Sensabaugh’s and-one layup with 13:05 remaining in the game. The freshman sat out the first several minutes of the second half because he was a defensive liability, but he converted a three-point play to give Ohio State a 51-50 lead. Ohio State led 2-0 early and then trailed for the next 26:02 until Sensabaugh’s bucket.
However, Minnesota scored a quick seven points over the next 2:23 to take a 57-51 lead, and Chris Holtmann was forced to call a timeout with 10:38 remaining. Ohio State went scoreless on their next two possessions, and Cooper knocked down another three with nine minutes remaining to give them their biggest lead of the game, 60-51.
Cooper is having himself a night @GopherMBB pic.twitter.com/XFI0Zqz9G5— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) January 13, 2023
Minnesota continued to play stout defense on the Buckeyes, repeatedly forcing them into tough, isolation situations. The Golden Gophers held a 64-56 lead at the final media timeout with 3:47 left in the game.
The Buckeyes strung together back-to-back buckets courtesy of Sueing and McNeil to make it 64-60 with two minutes remaining and two game-tying free throws from Sensabaugh with eight seconds remaining, but they simply weren’t able to get the defensive stops they needed in the closing minutes to pull off a comeback, falling to the worst team in the Big Ten, 70-67.
If you weren’t around tonight to see Ohio State’s third consecutive loss, here are a few moments and plays that were key in Minnesota’s decisive win on the road:
Key checks in early off the bench
After missing one game with a shoulder injury suffered against Purdue, Key checked into Thursday night’s game at the 17:05 mark and immediately scored a bucket over Ola-Joseph. Ohio State was clearly trying to ease Key back into the action against a team they thought they’d likely beat, but that’s not exactly how the game script played out with Minnesota leading for most of the first half.
Key finished with 10 points and 8 rebounds over 30 minutes following his one-game absence.
Battle gives Minnesota an early six-point lead
After Key got Ohio State back within three points, Battle connected on a three-pointer from the right wing to put Minnesota back up, 14-8 with 13:34 left in the first half. Battle shot nearly 37% from long range last season, but this year he’s struggled, hitting just 33% of his three-pointers. He went on to finish with 11 points, 4 rebounds, an assist and a block over 35 minutes.
Holden brings down the house, but Garcia answers
TANNER. HOLDEN. @tannerholden_23 x @OhioStateHoops pic.twitter.com/2hkdHCpHe0— Ohio State on BTN (@OhioStateOnBTN) January 12, 2023
With 8:49 left in the first half and Ohio State down 21-15, Tanner Holden slammed a ferocious dunk down off the feed from Isaac Likekele as he was being fouled by Samuels. Holden hit the free throw to make it 21-18 Ohio State, the closest they were since it was 8-6.
However, Minnesota answered with five straight points — all from Garcia — to go back in front, 26-18.
Holden finished with three points and two rebounds over 10 minutes.
Finally, some defense
Trailing 33-29 towards the end of the first half, Minnesota was hoping to extend the lead a bit more before the under-four timeout. However, the lineup of Thornton, Roddy Gayle, Sueing, Sensabaugh, and Key was able to force a shot clock violation to keep the deficit at four points with 3:41 left to go until halftime.
McNeil ties it up, but Minnesota heads to the locker room with a lead
Ta'lon Cooper with the jumper for @GopherMBB pic.twitter.com/H3knkO7jLW— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) January 13, 2023
Trailing 35-32 with 59 seconds left until halftime, McNeil was fouled on the elbow by Jaden Henley, resulting in three free throws. McNeil knocked down all three to tie the game for the first time in over 16 minutes, 35-35.
However, on the ensuing Minnesota possession, Cooper spun took a fadeaway jumper from near the baseline, and canned it, giving his squad a two-point halftime lead.
McNeil finished with 11 points on 3-9 shooting over 34 minutes. He was 2-2 from three-point range.
Sensabaugh’s and-one bucket gives Ohio State their first lead in over 26 minutes
Sensabaugh with the second effort to tie the game for @OhioStateHoops! pic.twitter.com/GJAsMOZuKF— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) January 13, 2023
Still trailing 50-48 with just over 13 minutes remaining in the game, Sensabaugh missed a driving layup on the left side, but corralled his own miss, put it back up, and was fouled by Garcia. Sensabaugh hit the free throw as well, giving Ohio State their first lead since it was 2-0 Buckeyes.
Garcia cleans up his own mess, puts Minnesota back up by six
Following Sensabaugh’s and-one that gave Ohio State the lead, Minnesota scored seven consecutive points to go back in front, 57-51. Garcia missed a layup with 10:43 remaining, but he was able to grab his own miss and score to put his team back up by six points.
Garcia tied his career-high with 28 points on 9-15 shooting over 38 minutes. He also had nine rebounds, two assists, and a steal.
Payne gives Minnesota their first double-digit lead of the game
Already leading 62-53, Pharrel Payne scored over the top of Key with 5:15 left in the game to put the Gophers up 64-53 — their largest lead of the evening. It was yet another possession where Ohio State played defense for 28 seconds, but couldn’t stop a basket in the final two or so seconds of the possession.
Payne finished with 10 points and 3 rebounds over 24 minutes.
Sensabaugh scores five straight to tie it up
Down 67-62 with 31 seconds remaining, Sensabaugh canned a triple from the corner to make it 67-65. Ohio State took 13 seconds to foul on the ensuing possession, but Samuels bailed them out and missed the front end of the one-and-one.
Ohio State grabbed the rebounds and barreled down the court. The ball wound up in Sensabaugh’s hands, and he was fouled by Cooper. Sensabaugh hit both, tying the game at 67 with 8 seconds remaining.
Sensabaugh finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds over 25 minutes. He was 6-18 shooting overall, 2-3 from three, and did not commit a turnover.
Thornton blocks Cooper, but is whistled for a foul with 1.7 seconds remaining
Do you agree with this call?— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) January 13, 2023
Minnesota and Ohio State are tied 67-67 with 1.7 to go pic.twitter.com/MXXB5ORyZ9
On Minnesota’s final possession, Cooper drove to the basket but was blocked by Thornton. The crowd cheered so loud that few people heard the whistle, as Thornton was called for a foul on the play. Cooper split the free throws to put Minnesota up 68-67 with 1.7 seconds remaining.
Cooper finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 blocks while playing all 40 minutes.
Ohio State (10-6, 2-3) has two days off before traveling to New Jersey for their rematch with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (12-5, 4-2) on Sunday afternoon. The Buckeyes won the first game between these two teams, 67-66, on December 8. It was not without controversy, however, as the Big Ten announced the next day that Tanner Holden’s game-winning three-pointer should not have counted.
The Scarlet Knights are looking like one of the best teams in the Big Ten thus far, and are coming off a 65-62 win over Northwestern on Wednesday night.
The Ohio State - Rutgers game will tip off at 2:15 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network.