While the Buckeyes win over Minnesota was just one of 18 Big Ten games and the 78-63 victory came against a Gophers team that entered the game just 6-6, it was a win that validated the team’s improvement in nonconference play.
Ohio State started the game on an 11-0 run and led by as many as 15 in the first half, but Minnesota wasn’t going anywhere, cutting the advantage to three at halftime and the Gophers took their first lead just over a minute into the second half.
A month ago, the Buckeyes might have folded as they did against Connecticut. Against the Gophers they responded with a dominating 23-5 second-half run that allowed them to coast to their first Big Ten victory.
“I think we grew up as a basketball team and we grew together. I think we grew together,” JaQuan Lyle said. “That’s the main thing, we’re a basketball team now, it’s no individuals.”
The Buckeyes first showed signs of that resolve in the season-defining win over Kentucky, and that was validated against the Gophers, a game that Lyle said they wouldn’t have won a month ago.
In Big Ten play few if any teams will lay down against the Buckeyes and they will have to continue to fight for every inch in conference play. The win over Minnesota showed that the team wasn’t going to panic and that’s a result of playing as a team rather than as five individuals, a sign of the growth the Buckeyes have had through 14 games.
“A month ago we struggled playing ourselves out of bad stretches and tonight we did a much better job when things didn’t go particularly well for us,” head coach Thad Matta said. “We were in foul trouble, 84 seconds on the clock and foul 80 feet from the basket to give them two points, those are things that a while ago probably could have done us in.
“I think we are getting better in that regard. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
So Man Assists: Speaking of team play, there is no better indicator of how connected a team is than assists and the Buckeyes finished with an obscene 24 of them against Minnesota.
That’s by far the best mark of the season and was led by a career-high 13 from JaQuan Lyle while A.J. Harris followed with four.
“That’s how this team has to play,” Matta said. “When the ball moves we are much more effective.
“Our style has always been to play unselfishly. Hopefully we can continue that.”
If the Buckeyes can continue to share the ball at anywhere close to that rate, the offense will continue to hum in Big Ten play.
Fast Start: While it was negated by a nice run from Minnesota late in the first half, Ohio State’s strong start reversed a trend of recent sluggishness to open games.
“I think that I’d be lying to you if I said there was something magical that we did because you always want to get out to a great start,” Matta said. “For whatever reason tonight things were clicking, we got some easy ones."
The Buckeyes scored on their first four possessions and connected on four of their first five shots. While the hot start couldn’t be maintained, coming back from a 15-point lead clearly took a toll on Minnesota and helped lead to the final result.
Sure, Matta would not like to see his team surrender a lead like that, but he’ll take all the fast starts he can get.
Bell Plays Well: Forced into action because Trevor Thompson and Daniel Giddens were in foul trouble, Dave Bell got some of his most meaningful action as a Buckeye and delivered a solid performance.
“I thought that David did a great job of coming in and really sparking us,” Matta said. “That’s something that we haven’t had a lot of here in terms of depth in the post position. David hasn’t played a lot in the last couple of games, but give the kid credit he was ready to go tonight and did a great job for us.”
While he only scored four points and hauled in two rebounds, he played strong defense over seven minutes of action and drew positive reviews from both his own coach and Minnesota coach Richard Pitino.