The star freshman was sidelined for the final 12:44 of the game with cramps but the Buckeye were still able to close out the Cornhuskers, pulling away for an 81-57 win.
Ohio State (20-8, 9-6) was firmly in control, leading 52-38, when Russell took a seat thanks to a balanced, aggressive performance from the Buckeyes as they snapped a two-game losing streak and handed Nebraska (13-15, 5-11) its sixth consecutive loss.
Jae'sean Tate got the Buckeyes going with a three-point play on the game’s first possession, a sign of things to come from the freshman. Tate hit his first seven shots on his way to a career-high 22 points, finishing 8-of-9 on the night to go along with a team-high seven rebounds.
“I thought Jae’Sean was terrific,” head coach Thad Matta said. “The plays that he made were there for him, I thought he took great advantage of them. He was really moving off the ball well in the first half, found some seams and layups and he’s so competitive.”
Ohio State was fueled by aggressive, attacking defense early that forced three turnovers in the game’s first four minutes. A transition alley-oop from Shannon Scott to Sam Thompsonwas followed by a steal and layup from Scott, prompting an early Nebraska timeout. The Buckeyes led 17-6 at the first media timeout, scoring nine of their points in transition and six off of turnovers.
The ability of the Buckeyes to get out and run early was a polar opposite to their sluggish start against Michigan last Sunday.
“It’s huge,” Thompson said of creating transition opportunities. “When we’re running to do what we want to do, that’s huge for us. You saw Sunday the byproduct of us not doing that. Our defense dictates our offense.”
The defensive intensity continued as Nebraska suffered a scoring drought of over four minutes midway through the first half, allowing Ohio State to take a 27-12 advantage with just under eight minutes remaining.
A transition three by Thompson off a nice pass from D’Angelo Russell gave Ohio State its first 20-point advantage of the night, 35-15 with 4:42 left in the first half. The Buckeyes took a 42-24 lead to the break.
That three was one of three on the night from Thompson as the senior finished with 15 points, one of nine Buckeyes to score. He was one of seven different Buckeyes to hit a three on the night as the team connected on 11 of their 19 attempts from behind the arc and hit 63.6 percent of their shots from the field.
“The two guys that hurt us the most were Sam Thompson hitting the threes, 3-for-3 beyond the arc and then you try to soften him up because of his athleticism,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said. “And then Jae'Sean, left-hand drivers for big kids are a little odd when you're playing personnel so we had three guys in a row didn't get his left hand to stop him driving. He drives right by them. He takes contact well, he's a bit of a truck in there and takes contact well and still finishes.”
Back-to-back threes to open the second half got Nebraska within 12 points, and while they would be within that mark multiple times after intermission the Cornhuskers would never be any closer.
The win improves Ohio State to 17-1 at home overall and 6-1 in conference play. It marks the first time the Buckeyes have scored 80 points since a win over Maryland Jan. 29.
Thompson credited the Buckeyes sense of urgency, something that was lacking on the road against Michigan, and the pace with which they were able to play.
“It was a must-win situation, it was a game that we had to have,” the forward said. “We had the start that we had to have, the type of start that you would expect from a team really fighting for their lives in late February. It was a big game for us, it was a big win for us but we’ve gotta keep it rolling now.”
Ohio State finished with 17 points off turnovers and 15 on the fast break. Scott finished with 13 points and six assists.
Russell, who Matta said had been sick all week, could have reentered the game had the Buckeyes needed him, but the coach thought it would be better to let the freshman rest in preparation for a 7:30 p.m. tip with Purdue Sunday.