Then the Gophers toughened up and took Russell out of the game, raising the stress level for coach Thad Matta and the Buckeyes. One last shot by Marc Loving was enough for them to escape.
Loving's jumper from the lane with 5.6 seconds left in overtime lifted No. 22 Ohio State to a 74-72 victory over Minnesota on Tuesday night after blowing a 12-point second-half lead.
"I loved the fashion that we won it, but it took a couple years off my life," Matta said.
Russell had 25 of his 27 points in the first half, missing all seven of his field-goal attempts after the break, but the fab freshman made two critical free throws for the Buckeyes (13-3, 2-1 Big Ten) with 63 seconds left in overtime. Loving added 13 points and seven rebounds.
"Whatever we had to do, if it was an ugly win or if it was a cute win, no matter what we just had to get the win," Russell said. "That was definitely ugly."
The Gophers (11-5, 0-3) were feeling that way, too, despite the tenacity they showed during the comeback. Mo Walker had 18 points and nine rebounds, Deandre Mathieu scored 17 points and Andre Hollins had all 12 of his points in the second half, but each of them had a turnover in overtime.
Matta scolded Loving for not shooting enough down the stretch. His tip-in with 2:05 left gave the Buckeyes a 70-68 lead. Then came the winning play, when he scraped off a screen by Amir Williams to get free in the lane for the leaner.
"I had a lot of faith in myself. I knew I was going to make it. We ran that play three times. It was just a matter of time. The third time's the charm," Loving said.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino declined to call timeout, letting Mathieu bring the ball up. But he was swarmed in the backcourt, and Shannon Scott swatted away the desperation pass to deny the Gophers a clean shot. Joey King was yelling to Mathieu from the wing.
"If I would have got it to Joey, he would have had a nice look," Mathieu said. "Scott made a nice play."
The Buckeyes, who started a stretch of four out of five games on the road, stayed with the energizing man-to-man defense they switched to during a comeback win against Illinois on Saturday. They showed their strength with the ball, too, and the conference's top-scoring team with a top-five field-goal percentage in the nation beat the Gophers again and again with back cuts to the basket.
Sam Thompson had two dunks and an emphatic blocked shot of Walker in the final 4 minutes of regulation, the second slam coming from a wide-open baseline and giving Ohio State a 66-63 lead. The Gophers used a 21-9 spurt to tie the game at 60 with 7:03 left, setting up the tense finish.
"I liked their effort. I'm still positive that we're headed in the right direction. It's disappointing certainly, but we've just got to rebound and stay positive," Pitino said.