COLUMBUS, Ohio – There was Aaron Craft, on the floor for probably the seventh or eighth time in the game, mouthpiece half-hanging out of his mouth and eyes focused directly on the ball he’d just poked free.
Craft hit his knees, then his chest, then he hit the ball forward with his fingertips. Three bounces and a pass later, Minnesota had to foul to stop a dunk. Deshaun Thomas then had two free throws and the Ohio State Buckeyes had all the momentum.
Those plays and those points were part of the deciding 16-0 run, which was part of a 32-8 run, and it all had Ohio State coach Thad Matta both pumping his fist and breathing a sigh of relief. In a game both Ohio State and Minnesota badly needed Wednesday night, the Buckeyes played like they needed it more.
The final score, 71-45, left little to the imagination.
It was a Big Ten survival game, bruised vs. reeling, perennial league power Ohio State looking to break out of a three losses in four games rut vs. a Minnesota team once considered a Big Ten sleeper. The Buckeyes, for now anyway, are survivors.
They put Minnesota to sleep in the second half, using a combination of those Craft-driven hustle plays, the kind of offensive volume Thomas wants and needs, and an all-around effort from a team determined to deliver a necessary bounce-back from a 22-point loss last Sunday at Wisconsin that several players called embarrassing.
That 32-8 run covered an 11:25 span, starting with 13:30 left in the game and ending only once the walk-ons were at the scorer’s table. Minnesota went 10:39 without a basket.
The reward for the Buckeyes (19-7, 9-5)? No two-a-day practice sessions like Matta held the day after the loss at Wisconsin, as well some confidence heading into Sunday, when an angry Michigan State team comes to town.
“You can’t relax in terms of, ‘Hey, we’re back,'” Matta said. “We’re not that good. We’ve continued to come in every day and practice hard, continue to learn and find ways to get better.
“We didn’t play perfect, but we kept playing. We kept pursuing the ball. There were a couple times we made some mistakes and recovered from them.”
For Ohio State to beat better teams than the bubble-bound Gophers (18-9, 6-8), the defense has to be this good and the offense needs to have something resembling balance. Maybe this win created both confidence and a blueprint. Matta subbed earlier and more freely than usual, Shannon Scott (11) and LaQuinton Ross (10) joined Thomas (19) in double figures, and Minnesota was held to 23 first-half points and 22 in the second.
For the night, Minnesota made 14 baskets and turned the ball over 24 times.
“A pathetic display of offensive basketball,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said.
Ohio State’s defense had a lot to do with that. The defense has to lead this team, which is short on shooters but has plenty of athletes. Thomas should continue to lead the Big Ten in scoring, and even though he was just 6-of-16 from the field vs. Minnesota, Ohio State used defense and ball movement to get him loose. Craft had a very Craft-like line of 6 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 3 steals.
“We thought (Minnesota) would come in and be aggressive,” Thomas said. “To me, they’re the most physical team in the Big Ten. I guess we came out and threw the first punch. We were the aggressor.
“You have to keep punching and punching.”
Holding Minnesota to 29.2 percent shooting was a season-best for the Buckeyes, but any success they’ll have from here starts with that defense. They’ve held opponents to under 40 percent shooting 15 times and under 50 percent in 23 of their 26 games. Those two practices Monday served to reinforce the point that the Buckeyes have to be better defensively than they were against Wisconsin and the week before, when they gave up 81 points to No. 1 Indiana.
Matta went to Scott earlier than usual on Wednesday to speed up the game, and Scott and reserve big man Evan Ravenel ended up matching Craft with 3 steals. Ohio State had a lot of players in passing lanes and turned that into a 20-2 advantage in fast-break points. The Buckeyes had neither a punch nor a counterpunch at Wisconsin, but they locked in and locked down the Gophers, who got just 8 minutes and 3 fouls from injured forward Rodney Williams and seem to be searching for answers.
“When things are not going well, it’s like a snowball,” Smith said. “Ohio State was feeling pretty comfortable and they turned up the heat. It felt like it was five or six turnovers during that (deciding) stretch. Even when we got a good look, we missed.
“We’re just not showing the mental toughness we really need to compete. We’re missing shots, and when you play against a team as talented as Ohio State and do that, they’re going to make you pay.”