At one point during the second half Wednesday night, after Ohio State squandered a 17-point first-half lead, Thad Matta gathered his team during a timeout and delivered a simple message.
“I actually told our guys, I just said, ‘Stop looking at the scoreboard and just play basketball,’” Matta revealed afterward. “‘Just get lost in the game of basketball and don’t worry about the score. All of your emotions need to be positive, we’re OK here. Don’t even look at it.’”
His point was rather straightforward: Matta wanted his team to get back to having fun, to enjoy what it was doing.
The end result was a 78-72 victory for the Buckeyes against Minnesota. It was Ohio State’s third win in its last four games. But like all of the Buckeyes’ victories in the Big Ten this season, this one was far from easy.
Ohio State led by as many as 17 points in the first half before the Gophers caught fire over the final three-plus minutes and completely erased the Buckeyes’ advantage. Minnesota scored the final 12 points of the first half and trailed by just five at halftime.
But Ohio State didn’t allow that to affect it much in the second half. The Buckeyes made timely plays down the stretch — Marc Loving’s 3-pointer with 57 seconds remaining gave Ohio State a 75-69 lead — knocked down key free throws and got a couple of Trevor Thompson blocks at the defensive end to seal the win.
“It’s definitely frustrating when we blow a 15- or 17-point lead like we had, but we’ve been in similar situations throughout the season and we realized that this is Big Ten basketball, it’s a grind,” Thompson said. “The biggest thing is just embracing the fight, embracing the flow of the game and stuff like that. We realized that we were going to have to compete and play harder.”
Led by Thompson and Loving, that’s exactly what Ohio State did.
Thompson recorded his 10th career double-double as the junior big man scored a career-high 19 points and also grabbed 10 rebounds. Loving added 19 points himself and made 3-of-5 attempts from behind the 3-point line.
Sophomore point guard JaQuan Lyle scored 11 points, junior forward Jae’Sean Tate had 10 points and seven rebounds and freshman wing Andre Wesson added a career-high nine points off the bench for the Buckeyes.
In what was another tightly-contested game, Ohio State made the plays in the final minutes it had failed to make on more than one occasion this season.
“Fortunately, we made the plays we needed to make down the stretch,” Matta said. “Obviously, that’s a very talented, very good basketball team but happy with what our guys were able to do tonight.”
Ohio State is certainly in no position to get comfortable now, however.
The Buckeyes are still just 13-8 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten with a road game at Iowa looming Saturday night. There’s still plenty of work to be done and both Matta and the players know it.
“We don’t have time to feel good,” Thompson said. “We didn’t play as good as we wanted to play and luckily we pulled out the win but we know we have to play better. We’re not satisfied or happy whatsoever.”
Matta likened the situation to when a child has a set of building blocks and then knocks the entire set over. Matta wants his team to quickly erase Wednesday’s win from its memory and start fresh Thursday.
“Every day is Day 1,” Matta said. “I think from the standpoint of we’re in the position we’re in but there’s a lot of basketball to still be played. The second we feel like, ‘Hey, we feel like we’ve got this thing figured out,’ that’s not a good thing for our team.”
Ohio State’s man in the middle echoed his coach’s thoughts.
“How we played today wasn’t good enough so we’ve got to continue to just play better because we’re not satisfied whatsoever and we know we have a lot of work to do,” Thompson said. “We’re going to continue to keep working, continue to keep chipping away and continue competing.”
And hopefully, Ohio State can still remember to have a little fun.
It seemed to work Wednesday night.