Two very different stanzas made up what was ultimately a strange game for the No. 24 Buckeyes (22-6, 9-6), who played arguably their best basketball of the season in the second half of Saturday's 64-46 win over Minnesota (17-11, 6-9). What the scoreboard showed as a gashing of the Golden Gophers, however, was far from that in the first half, when the Buckeyes headed to the locker room trailing by double digits.
"I think they have heart," OSU coach Thad Matta said of his team. "This team has not done that this season. For whatever reason, we just didn't have what we needed... I like the fact that they came back, fought and clawed and put the run together. It shows me these guys got a lot of heart."
The Buckeyes' heart was put on display at the start of the second half, when a 27-5 run to open the stanza erased and eclipsed what was a 10-point Minnesota halftime lead. Pushing a transition pace that was nonexistent in the first half, Ohio State scored at will and stood stout on the defensive end of the floor, taking a 45-35 advantage with 10:42 left in the game.
"It was a combination of everything," Buckeyes forward LaQuinton Ross said of his team's second half surge. "Big plays spark this team, especially on the defensive end."
There was plenty of excitement to go around in the second half thanks to OSU forward Sam Thompson, who scored a season-high 19 points -- 16 of which came in the second half. Scoring 10 consecutive Buckeye points to push his team's lead to 10, the Chicago native scored in every which way for Ohio State, connecting on free throws, a three-pointer, a layup and one of his signature alley-oop slams.
Asked about the difference in his play in the past week -- Thompson also scored 11 points against Northwestern on Wednesday -- the junior pointed to a newfound aggression that has been partially paved by his team's collective success.
"When we're playing defense the way that we were playing defense in the second half, when we're allowing our defense to translate over to the offensive end, it's easy to get into a good rhythm," Thompson said. "It's easy to get open looks, it's easy to get dunks and layups and get yourself going."
After taking its first double-digit lead of the game, the Buckeyes extended their lead to as many as 21 points in the second half, surrendering just 18 post-halftime points to the Gophers. Ohio State's second stanza success came in stark contrast to its first period woes, which were highlighted by a 27.3 percent shooting percentage and the Buckeyes heading into halftime at a 28-18 disadvantage.
Matta said that before Saturday's game even started, he had a bad feeling about his team's prospects, as a sloppy shootaround session carried into a first half that saw Ohio State fall behind 7-0 in the game's opening three minutes.
"At shootaround today, we started with some stuff and we weren't very sharp. I had to raise my voice and kind of get their attention," Matta said. "I said, ‘We have an odd way about us. And I don't like it.'"
So what was the difference in the tale of two different halves in Columbus? A simple halftime message from Matta that made an apparent breakthrough for the Buckeyes.
"I just said, ‘There's nothing I can draw up on the board. There's nothing we can really talk about until we play better basketball,'" Matta recalled. "The bottom line is, I said, ‘You have to play better. Play better.'"
The Buckeyes did just that, with Thompson's 19 points leading the way, as he was joined in double digits by Lenzelle Smith Jr., who scored 13 points and Shannon Scott, who had 10. Minnesota was paced by guard Andre Hollins' 13 points, with backcourt mate DeAndre Mathieu adding 12.
Having clinched no worse than a .500 record in Big Ten play, the Buckeyes will return to action on Thursday, traveling to Happy Valley for a rematch with Penn State, who beat OSU in Columbus in January.
"From what we did this year, every game from here on out is a desperation game for us," Ross said. "The guys in the locker room know that too. Going into the NCAA Tournament, it's always a good idea to have a high seed in that tournament. Everybody knows what's at stake for us."