With less than two minutes left in the game and the shot clock showing a red six, D’Angelo Russell called for a ball screen, took two dribbles to his right and elevated for a three. The freshman nailed it, his third three of the second half, and it gave the Buckeyes (23-9) the breathing room they needed at 72-65 with 1:41 left, allowing Ohio State to hang on for a 79-73 victory over the Gophers (18-15) in its first game of the Big Ten Tournament.
After missing his first six attempts from behind the arc, Russell wasn’t shy about taking over when he needed to.
“Coach (Thad) Matta thought I was playing around,” Russell said. “I give a lot of credit to him. He told me -- he pulled me to the side and, he said, ‘Yo, it's time.’ And like I said in previous interviews, it just clicks for me. And I knew my teammates were looking for me and putting me in a position to score and capitalize.”
It was an opportunistic performance for the entire Buckeye roster as the team rebounded from some cold perimeter shooting in the first half to withstand a pesky Minnesota team in front of 16,549 at the United Center in Chicago. Russell finished with a game-high 23 points while Shannon Scott scored a career-high 21 and Marc Loving snapped out of his post-suspension funk to tally 12 off the bench.
Scott was aggressive early, scoring four of the team’s first eight points. The senior added to his career-high point total with five rebounds and a team-high six assists.
Freshman Jae’Sean Tate said that Scott and fellow senior Sam Thompson (nine points, seven rebounds) helped the team move forward after a disappointing loss to Wisconsin to end the regular season.
“They just kept telling us that this is a different season,” Tate said. “With them being seniors they’ve got to play like it’s their last. We’re feeding off of that. I feel like we are coming closer every game. We’re just trying to roll and hit our stride.”
The Buckeyes weren’t rolling early, at least not from three-point range. Ohio State was 1 of 12 from behind the arc in the first half, but connected on 68.4 percent of their shots from inside the arc (13 of 19) in the first 20 minutes to stay in the game and go to halftime tied with the Gophers at 35.
Minnesota got off to a strong start, hitting five of its first six shots to take a 12-8 lead. A 16-4 Ohio State run that saw six Buckeyes score gave them a 24-16 advantage. The Gophers answered with a 10-2 run of their own and the teams traded baskets to head to the half tied.
“We knew they were going to come out hungry,” Scott said. “Our biggest thing was we knew they're going to have a lot of energy and at times in our game we didn't really match that. That's how they got those runs on us but I think we did a good job of containing it as much as we can.”
Minnesota jumped out to a 40-38 lead in the first minute after intermission, but it would be the Gophers last advantage of the game. Tate tied the score at 40 at the 18:32 mark to trigger an 11-2 run that would give the Buckeyes the lead for good.
Scott contributed two points, two assists and a rebound during that run, indicative of his balanced performance. Freshman Kam Williams said that’s the type of play he knows Scott can bring every night.
“Sometimes I think we believe in Shannon more than he does in himself,” Williams said. “Because he can score. Shannon can score the basketball. A lot of times you’ve got to tell him, ‘Hey, you’re here for a reason. You don’t have to just pass to anybody. You can score, too. That’s why you’re here.’ Sometimes you’ve just got to give him that pat on the back and just tell him, ‘You can score the basketball, too.’ Sometimes I think he gets too caught up in being a straight point guard. But he can score the ball.”
That run extended Ohio State’s lead to 49-42 and it would swell to 13 on free throws from Trey McDonald, giving the Buckeyes a 61-48 lead with 9:46 remaining.
While those McDonald free throws extended the lead, they came during a 6:49 field goal drought for the Buckeyes. Though Ohio State hit eight free throws during that stretch, but the Gophers got within one possession during that drought. A Marc Loving layup with 5:02 remaining gave Ohio State a 67-63 lead and the advantage would not be within single digits again.
The victory moved Matta into first place in the Ohio State record books for coaching wins with 298, snapping a tie with Fred Taylor. It was also the 400th career victory for Matta.
"Think, personally, for me, people -- it probably means the most for me is my wife and my two daughters," Matta said. "Because I've gone probably --well, going on eight years with a disability, and they're the ones that have suffered the things that I can't do as a father. I can't do as a husband. And they've never wavered. I have some really, really bad days in terms of coming home after games and they've got to help me get my shoes and socks off, and for them to stay the course with me, it means a heck of a lot more to me for them than it does for myself."
The historic victory advances No. 6 Ohio State to the quarterfinals for a game with No. 3 Michigan State. The Spartans topped Ohio State by three points on a last-second shot in East Lansing on Feb. 14.
“I do feel like we have momentum going in because we owe them one,” Tate said. “We can’t go out there and not play hard. We’ve got to be ready because they are a great team.”