Death came in threes for Minnesota against Ohio State on Sunday.
Three players combined to hit threes on three consecutive possessions to push the Buckeyes’ lead back to double digits with less than two minutes to play, sealing their win after the Golden Gophers cut OSU’s once 20-point lead down to two scores twice.
It started with a catch-and-shoot from NBA range at the top of the key from Jamison Battle. Then, Bruce Thornton cashed in a fantastic step-back triple from the left corner before Roddy Gayle Jr. swished another catch-and-shoot from the right wing.
“It’s straight confidence,” Thornton said after Sunday’s game. “I have confidence in everybody to make those types of shots because we work on it nonstop. When you have that type of confidence and that type of faith in your teammates, you feel like every shot is going to go in.”
Those three players weren’t just the top three scorers for Ohio State against Minnesota – Thornton with 26, Battle with 25 and Gayle with 16 – they’ve been the top three scorers all season for a Buckeye team that is off to a great start offensively.
“That will get defined (as the season continues), I’m not sitting here saying, ‘Hey, it’s definitely going to be those three guys every night,’” Holtmann said. “But Bruce and Roddy, to your point, and Jamison, all three of those guys early in the season have proven that they’re pretty consistent at that.”
Thornton paces the Buckeyes with 19.3 points per game eight games into the year with Gayle and Battle at 14.6 and 14 per contest, respectively.
Ohio State as a whole is 17th across college basketball with 120.1 points per 100 possessions, placing it in the top 5% of the sport’s 362 teams. The Buckeyes also rank 16th in KenPom’s opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency metric.
Three players from the Buckeyes’ bench average at least six points per game, led by center Zed Key with 9.6 per contest. It’s not as though Thornton, Battle and Gayle are the only ones scoring for the squad, but thus far those three have led the charge.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to win,” Battle said. “And if that’s what it takes to win, then no one is going to be mad about that. But to say that us three are the scorers – yeah, you could say that, but if you really look at it, everyone contributes in their own aspect on this team and I think that’s what’s so special about it. Everyone is so well-connected, on the court and off the court. So with that, you trust in every person on this team.”
Battle said he treated the matchup with Minnesota, the school he transferred from this offseason, the same as any other Big Ten game, though he added that there were plenty of emotions involved in the game.
He looked particularly engaged early. Battle went on a personal 8-0 run to help Ohio State push its early lead to 14-2 in the game’s first six minutes.
“I didn’t want to make more of it than what it was, I even told (associate director of athletic communications Gary Petit) to cancel his interview with you guys, but Gary doesn’t listen to me anyways,” Holtmann said with a wry smile. “He had a good look in his eye. I was pleased that he got off early there and was able to make some shots.”
Multiple 11-0 runs gave the Buckeyes a chance to hold multiple 20-point leads throughout the game, but the Gophers – more specifically forward Dawson Garcia, who racked up 36 points on the evening – kept chipping away as the second half progressed.
Team leaders told their teammates to keep calm as the Golden Gophers cut it to a six-point advantage a second time with 3:24 to play.
“We just tell ourselves to hit singles, don’t look for the home run play,” Thornton said. “If you keep getting stops and get to the spots that we want offensively, I feel like we’ll be in good shape. We didn’t get too ahead of ourselves, we just made the right play at the right time.”
Last season, in similar situations, it seemed as though freshman wing Brice Sensabaugh – since selected with the 28th pick in the first round of the 2023 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz – was the team’s only go-to scorer.
While giving respect to everything Sensabaugh accomplished last year, Thornton feels that the Buckeyes have benefitted from having three threats to generate a basket at any given time.
“This year, I feel like it’s way harder to guard when you have three people at any given moment that can give you a bucket,” Thornton said. “The defense has to be on their toes at all times. I feel like me hitting a shot then Roddy hitting a shot then Jamison hitting a shot, I feel like defensively, you can’t key on one person. At any moment we can get downhill, be aggressive and set up for somebody else to make the play.”
That was exemplified by the trio’s above-mentioned sequence of three 3s in three possessions.
“It was really big,” Holtmann said. “It staved off their run. They had a five-point possession coming out of a timeout (before), which I didn’t love. We overhelped late in the clock. ... I think guys are playing with a high level of confidence. We also shared (the ball).”
Still, the coach will continue looking up and down the roster for scoring options.
“I think Zed, on a given night, can get double figures,” Holtmann said. “I thought Scotty (Middleton) gave us great minutes tonight, made shots and played his role at a good level. ... I think Dale (Bonner) can give us double figures on a given night.”
Holtmann added that defense, not offense, has been the issue for Ohio State so far. Contrary to their offensive metrics, the Buckeyes are 140th in points allowed per 100 possessions and 59th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating.
Still, as long as Thornton, Battle and Gayle each remain a threat to score 20 points on a given night – all have multiple 20-point games already this year – the team will have a shot to keep pace with top-tier competition.