Monday night’s game against Oakland was not the best performance of Bruce Thornton’s young career.
Ohio State’s star point guard shot just 3-of-11 as the Buckeyes narrowly escaped an upset bid from the Golden Grizzlies by a 79-73 score.
Thornton still put up 17 points thanks in part to an 8-for-8 night from the free-throw line, though he managed just two assists. And he hit the best of his three makes when it mattered most.
Oakland sharpshooter Jack Gohlke hit a 3-pointer with 2:34 to play to cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 68-67 when it had been at 67-60 less than three minutes prior. Thornton missed a jumper on the other end, but the ball deflected off a Golden Grizzly and out of bounds to give Ohio State another shot to extend its lead.
Jamison Battle received the ensuing inbound pass and swung it to Scotty Middleton, who tossed it to Roddy Gayle Jr. on the wing. Gayle took a dribble toward the basket and drew three defenders, immediately kicking the ball out to Thornton, who was waiting open in the left corner.
Thornton drained the shot to quell Oakland’s momentum and bring the Value City Arena crowd to its feet.
"I couldn’t hit any threes in the beginning (of the game)," Thornton said. "(Oakland) was hitting all these threes and I said, 'I’ve got to at least hit one.' I knew Roddy was going to pass it, I was like, 'It’s going to come, you’ve just got to be patient.' He gave it to me in the corner, I was ready to go. That’s a shot we worked on all week because in their zone (defense), the corner was a big opening for us."
Thornton’s going to continue to be the man Ohio State calls upon to make big shots as the season progresses, regardless of whether he’s been on or off on a given night.
"I don’t care if he’s 0-of-10, he’s got to be able to take the 11th good one for this team," Chris Holtmann said. "He’s got freedom to do that if it’s a good look, he needs to take that for us. ... He brings other things to the team, to helping his team win – he’s going to be on the floor a lot, he’s going to make a lot of big shots for us."
Oakland head coach Greg Kampe took notice of Thornton in preparation to play Ohio State. He referred to him as the best player on Ohio State’s team, with no player providing more stress for him in the lead-up to the matchup between both squads.
"He’s a man, he’s confident and he makes big shots," Kampe said. "I love guys that make big shots. The way he played in that Big Ten Tournament last year – when you’re there the first game of the year, you get to watch way too much film. I haven’t watched any of Illinois, and I won’t go to bed tonight because that’s all I’ll do, is watch Illinois. But I watched months of them. And he kept me up."
Thornton’s free throw shooting also showed his ability to hit big shots when called upon. Four of the eight makes from his perfect night at the charity stripe came in the final minute of the contest as Ohio State worked to finally close out Oakland.
“I don’t care if he’s 0-of-10, he’s got to be able to take the 11th good one for this team.”– Chris Holtmann on Bruce Thornton
Despite his team’s struggles overall against the mid-major foe, Thornton felt the win demonstrated his team’s mettle.
"It shows that we can grind out games," Thornton said. "That was a very ugly win for us, but I feel like we have a lot of issues, errors that first game. I feel like we kept fighting through that and we found an answer at the end of the game."
Holtmann was quick to point out that Michigan State, ranked No. 4 in the country entering the 2023-24 season, was having its own issues with a mid-major in James Madison on Monday.
The Spartans ultimately lost 79-76 in overtime to the Dukes. The opening week of college basketball can often be a strange one.
"There’s good teams – Michigan State’s down at half right now – there’s good teams that this first week that struggle," Holtmann said. "I think some of that is that there’s perspective required too. Sometimes, young guys, they don’t always have that. So I think as much as anything, we try to prepare for this being a dangerous game and we’re going to be playing a lot of games like this this year."
Ohio State will need to count on Thornton to keep hitting big shots. Possibly as soon as Friday, when it faces its first ranked opponent in No. 15 Texas A&M.