So as this Saturday's battle against No. 9 Kansas drew within a week, the Buckeyes' excitement for the top-10 matchup with the Jayhawks grew stronger. The problem? OSU still had 40 minutes of basketball to play before Kansas was next up.
Winthrop took advantage of being the overlooked team on the schedule, forcing No. 7 Ohio State to rely on a late run midway through the second half to regain a lead before eventually escaping with the narrow 65-55 win.
"Our minds weren't right at the beginning of the game, starting in practice," junior forward Deshaun Thomas said. "We had a little scrimmage and we didn't score. We didn't put the ball in the basket and it came into this game. We took (Winthrop) lightly."
Thomas finished the game with a team-high 21 points, 10 of which were scored on 12-4 run for the Buckeyes in the second half that spanned less than three minutes, helping No. 7 Ohio State (9-1) erase a two-point Winthrop lead and turn it into a 47-41 advantage with 11:18 remaining.
From that point, Ohio State held control of a game that was in question much longer than the 13,707 in Value City Arena anticipated.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. added 14 points and point guards Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott were what head coach Thad Matta called the key, setting the tone with aggressive defense that led to 10-straight stops after OSU reclaimed the lead in the second half.
Admittedly looking forward to facing Kansas since getting into early foul trouble in the Final Four loss a year ago, Thomas started the game quickly by scoring the team's first five points and converting on his first two field goal attempts.
But it wasn't one of those games where Thomas got hot early and kept it going for the rest of the game while simultaneously burying the opponent. The junior forward missed his next nine shot attempts while Winthrop held advantages for long periods of time. When Thomas woke up in the second half – during which he hit five shots in a row – so did the Buckeyes.
"I felt like it was going to be one of those (big scoring) nights, but give big ups to Winthrop because they came out and played more aggressive than we did," said Thomas, who also had a career-high four assists. "It was one of those nights where you make the first couple, but you miss the next nine. But you just have to stay ready, and that's what I did."
Ohio State led 31-30 after a first half that left a lot to be desired. The Buckeyes led by seven points early, but the Eagles held them scoreless for more than four minutes to take a 14-12 lead. Smith, who had 10 points at the break, and LaQuinton Ross hit back-to-back three-pointers to lift OSU back up to 31-25.
Winthrop, however, didn't go away after a run that looked to put OSU back in control after a sluggish first half. A three by Christian Farmer and a driving layup by Derrick Henry – who led the Eagles with 12 points – helped Winthrop respond and score the final five points of the half.
Matta wasn't pleased with the Buckeyes performance, particularly because Ohio State's biggest test since losing at Duke on Nov. 28 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge now is only now four days away.
"It is unfortunate if that's the case," Matta responded when asked if he felt his team was looking forward to Kansas. "The thing we have always tried to get these guys to understand is that we've got to get better. I don't think this team is as good as it is going to be, and you have to have that mind-set that you have to come in and get better every day. If that was the case, they learned a valuable lesson."