COLUMBUS, Ohio – It's not how you start; it's how you finish.
That’s what athletes have been told for decades. The old maxim proved true Saturday night at Value City Arena – and could serve as a microcosm for the 2013-14 Ohio State season.
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The Buckeyes didn’t score until four minutes had passed by Saturday night. By then, Minnesota had built a 7-0 en route to a 12-point second-half advantage. But Ohio State scored 17 straight points in a decisive 27-5 run that put the Golden Gophers in the rear-view mirror.
Sam Thompson scored 10 consecutive points during the spurt on the way to a season-high 19, including 16 after the break, to pace the Buckeyes in a 64-46 victory. Lenzelle Smith Jr. tallied 13 points and six rebounds, Shannon Scott scored 10 points and Aaron Craft recorded six points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals.
Credit Ohio State head coach Thad Matta with an impassioned halftime speech.
“In essence, I just said, ‘There’s nothing I can draw up on the board or talk about until we play better basketball,’” Matta said. “We didn’t have what we needed and we weren’t attacking. The bottom line, I said, ‘You have to play better.’”
Minnesota went through an almost 14-minute stretch in the second half in which they made just 3 of 14 shots and turned the ball over seven times. The Buckeyes scored 34 points in the paint, 17 points off turnovers and 17 second-chance points.
“They were getting out on the break, we lost them in the zone a couple times,” Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino said. “Too many turnovers led to easy buckets.”
The Gophers shot 17-of-48 from the field for the game.
Ohio State outscored Minnesota 46-18 in the second half, shooting a stout 56.7 percent. The Gophers never got closer than eight once the Buckeyes grabbed the lead.
“Obviously, great first half, awful second half,” Pitino said. “We continue to do things that don’t allow us to win. We had nine turnovers in the second half, and they made us pay on every single on of them.”
The defeat serves as a crippling blow to Minnesota's NCAA tournament hopes. The Gophers (17-11, 6-9 Big Ten) have lost six of their past eight games, falling to seventh place in the conference.
Ohio State (22-6, 9-6) has won six of seven games in February after losing five of six after New Year's. With two weeks remaining in the season, the Buckeyes are in a race to receive a coveted first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament. They reside in fifth place with the top four teams getting a free pass to the quarterfinals. Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska the chief competition.
“Defense is what this team is based on, and it’s how we win,” Ross said. “Every game here on out is a desperation game for us. The guys in the locker room know that, too. We all know what’s at stake.”
In the teams' previous meeting this season, Minnesota outrebounded Ohio State by 15. Saturday served as a role reversal, with the Buckeyes outrebounding the Gophers 35-25. Ohio State also trimmed its turnovers from 18 to 11.
Ohio State used a 46-point second half to come back from double-digit halftime hole.
The last time the Buckeyes trailed by 10 or more at the half and came back to win was Jan. 12, 2010 at No. 6 Purdue.
“In this league, you need to play like every game is the biggest game of your life,” Matta said. “If you’re not ready to compete, fight or execute, you’re going to be embarrassed. It’s going to be exactly the same when we play Penn State on Wednesday. We have to get ourselves ready to go.”
Ohio State missed its first five shots of the night before rattling off seven consecutive points. The Buckeyes made 6 of 22 shots in the first half and no player had more than four points. They were limited to a season-low 18 points in the first half.
Minnesota used an 11-2 run late in the half to build a 28-18 halftime lead. The Gophers never trailed before the break.
“The first half was definitely the worst we’ve played,” Thompson said. “Coach Matta said we haven’t laid an egg all season, but we definitely did in the first half. The second half was some of the best basketball we’ve played all season.”
Thompson provided the exclamation points with an alley-oop during the Buckeyes’ second-half onslaught. It sent the 18,809 fans in attendance into a frenzy and foreshadowed what was to come.
Minnesota was going for its first season sweep of Ohio State since the 2004-05 season.