Coming off of a 20-point defeat at Iowa on Dec. 9, there was little reason to believe the Gophers would improve to .500 in conference play as they faced one of the nation's best teams on Sunday. Nevertheless, as the final buzzer sounded, the student section stormed the court to celebrate an impressive victory.
Fueled by the confident scoring of redshirt sophomore Marcus Carr, Minnesota (5-5, 1-1 Big Ten) upset No. 3 Ohio State (9-1, 1-1 Big Ten), 84-71. Head coach Richard Pitino credited the Gophers' defensive effort against a Buckeyes team averaging 80.9 points per game.
"I don't think there was a weakness in what we did," Pitino said. "I thought from start to finish that was as complete a game as we played here and that started with the defense."
Early in the game, Minnesota managed to hold its own against one of the nation's best teams. The Gophers scored on four consecutive possessions in the opening five minutes, taking an 11-9 lead over the Buckeyes, who entered the game ranked No. 6 nationally in scoring defense.
Throughout the middle portion of the opening period, Minnesota continued to hold their own as the Buckeyes did not score over a 4:47 stretch. During that time, the Gophers used an 8-0 run to take a 19-14 lead. In the first half, Minnesota drove to the rim often and shot 15-29 from the field, compared to 10-29 for Ohio State.
"We started driving the ball more," Pitino said. "We chart paint touches. You can't just have Marcus get 16 or 17 a game, and then the rest [of the guards] get one or two. That's just not a recipe for winning."
Carr bounced back from a 1-10 shooting performance in the Gophers' 72-52 loss at Iowa earlier in the week to score a game-high 35 points on Sunday. Eleven of his points came in the first 6:28 of the second half.
"He's a very confident kid," Pitino said of Carr. "Doesn't get too high, doesn't get too low. He handles adversity really well and he just goes back to work. ... Every time we needed a basket, whether is be getting a big three or getting to the rim, he did that."
Carr's strong play helped propelled the Gophers to an 18-point lead with 12:29 remaining. Ohio State came within 12 points as Minnesota was unable to score over the next 2:46, but Carr ended the drought by hitting both ends of a one-and-one.
Alongside Carr, Minnesota's other guards stepped up after redshirt junior Payton Willis exited the game with an injury early in the second half. Sophomore Gabe Kalscheur scored 15 points and freshman Tre' Williams added six off the bench. Williams also provided value with his perimeter defending.
"Unfortunately Payton went down today but Tre' was ready," Carr said. "He stepped up, he made big plays for us throughout the whole game and especially down the stretch. That wasn't something any of us were surprised by."
At center, sophomore Daniel Oturu recorded his sixth double-double of the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds. He also drew the task of guarding Ohio State's best player, junior Kaleb Wesson, who turned the ball over six times on Sunday.
"He's a tough cover," Oturu said of Wesson. "I tried to stay as low as possible and not foul him, make him shoot over length. He's a tough guy."
Leading 67-49 with six minutes remaining, the Gophers had to weather one final push from Ohio State. An 11-2 Buckeyes run cut Minnesota's lead back to single digits, but that was as close at they would come as a Carr layup quickly put the Gophers back up by 11.
Freshman D.J. Carton led Ohio State in scoring with 19 points. Minnesota limited Wesson to 12 points on 4-13 shooting as he battled foul trouble throughout the second half and was limited to 28 minutes. The Buckeyes were also without sophomore Duane Washington Jr., who was averaging 11.4 points per game this season. Washington missed the game due to a rib injury.
"His absence obviously leaves a scoring vacancy," Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said of Washington, "But I don't think it was every really one of those games that was within reach enough."
Minnesota will return to non-conference play on Dec. 21 in a neutral-site game against Oklahoma State in Tulsa, Oklahoma.