Before the Minnesota men’s basketball game Sunday, the 18th-ranked Gophers looked focused, concentrating on a difficult matinee at Williams Arena against a cool, calm and collected Ohio State team whose confidence was sky high.
The Buckeyes’ swagger quickly turned Minnesota’s focus into tension and frustration as the nation’s top-ranked team proved too tough for the Gophers in an 82-69 loss, their third straight defeat.
“They just came out hard and hit us in the mouth,” Gophers guard Austin Hollins said.
Ohio State (24-0, 11-0 Big Ten) did everything an undefeated juggernaut is supposed to do in a tough conference road test, making few mistakes and taking advantage of those made by the Gophers, whose 19 turnovers tied a season worst.
“We were just careless with the ball,” said Hollins, a freshman who made his fourth start of the season. “Those are the kind of mistakes we just can’t have in a big game like this — or any game at that.”
Many of the careless mistakes came from the Gophers’ post players with Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson combining for 12 turnovers. They also struggled on the glass and grabbed a total of just 12 rebounds while the Buckeyes had 22 offensive rebounds, many of which came after the Gophers had a chance to grab it.
Senior David Lighty scored a game-high 19 points for the Buckeyes and freshman Jared Sullinger had 18 points and 13 rebounds, eight of them on the offensive glass. All five Ohio State starters finished in double-digit scoring.
Senior guard Blake Hoffarber, who led the Gophers with 16 points, struggled again with point guard duties and coughed up four turnovers. Hoffarber wore a knee brace in the second half because of what coach Tubby Smith called a “little knee problem.”
Senior Al Nolen missed his fourth straight game since breaking a bone in his right foot. When these two teams played in Columbus, Ohio on Jan. 9, the Gophers lost by only 3 — with Nolen playing a key role.
“I feel for Minnesota with the injuries and just trying to find ways to piece it together,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
The Buckeyes came out scorching, determined to prove why they’re the nation’s top team. They took a 28-16 lead on a Lighty 3-pointer less than 12 minutes into the game.
Sampson kept the Gophers (16-7, 5-6 Big Ten) in the game for much of the first half, scoring 12 of his 14 points in the final 8:08 of the half. His layup cut the deficit to just six with 1:32 left in the half, but Ohio State managed to take a 38-30 lead into the break.
The Gophers trailed by just 5 when Hoffarber hit a 3-pointer early in the second half, but two straight dunks by center Dallas Lauderdale gave the Buckeyes all the momentum. Ohio State took a 48-37 lead on another Lauderdale slam with 16:03 left, and the Gophers never cut the deficit to single digits.
“We were pretty much manhandled in the second half,” Smith said. “I thought Ohio State is very deserving of their No. 1 ranking.”
Freshman reserve Chip Armelin provided a bit of optimism for the Gophers as he scored a career-high 14 points. Smith said Armelin could potentially play point guard to help alleviate the pain of losing Nolen.
When Hoffarber went down with the injury, Smith had to play Hollins, Armelin and Maverick Ahanmisi, three freshmen. The three guards had only two combined turnovers.
“I love the way our freshmen play, how hard they play and the energy they give us,” Smith said. “I liked our freshmen. I didn’t like our other guys the way they turned the ball over, to be honest with you.”
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