COLUMBUS — No. 18 Ohio State shook off a sleepy first-half effort to bury the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 70-45, in Value City Arena on Tuesday evening.
E.J. Liddell scored 12 of his game-high 16 points as part of a 47-point second-half onslaught by Ohio State, and he added 10 rebounds to record his sixth double-double of the season.
Despite picking up two fouls in the first two minutes of the game, Jamari Wheeler overcame the early foul trouble to factor heavily into the win, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the second half. Freshman Malaki Branham added 11 points, his fourth double-digit effort in his last six games, to continue his strong emergence in conference play.
After connecting on just one of eight three-point attempts as a team in the first half, Ohio State shot a blistering 60% in the second half to pull away from Minnesota. The Gophers shot a paltry 5-19 from three on the evening, including a 1-8 effort in the second half as the game began to get away from them.
Both teams got off to well enough offensive starts, trading baskets over the opening four minutes as Minnesota took an early 10-8 lead into the first media timeout. Kyle Young’s three-pointer, followed by a steal and a score by Wheeler, were part of a 9-3 Ohio State run that had the Buckeyes out in front 17-13 as the first half ticked under 10 minutes.
Turnovers issues began to plague Ohio State, however, allowing Minnesota to remain within striking distance and eventually build a lead. Seven turnovers in just over six minutes of play aided a 10-0 Minnesota run that had the Gophers in front by six points with three minutes remaining in the half.
Badly in need of an answer before halftime, timely baskets by Branham and Brown ended a six-minute Ohio State scoring drought and brought them back to within two points. Following a layup from Minnesota’s Payton Willis, Cedric Russell’s layup again cut the lead to two and sent the Buckeyes into the locker room with some momentum despite the start.
“We were a little sluggish,” Zed Key said of Ohio State’s first-half performance following the game. “The coaching staff said to us in the huddle that we have to attack the (Minnesota) zone. We really weren’t aggressive in the zone, especially when we came into halftime. We started to attack the zone, get good looks, and we hit shots.”
Wheeler got the Buckeyes rolling right out of the gate to begin the second half, connecting on a three-pointer on their first possession to give Ohio State the lead. Just two minutes later, Branham’s back-to-back three-pointers began to blow the game open as Ohio State took a 37-29 lead, forcing Minnesota head coach Ben Johnson to call a timeout.
The timeout did little to stem the tide, however, as Ohio State continued to build on its lead. Wheeler’s three-pointer out of the timeout had Ohio State up by double digits for the first time on the night, capping a 17-4 run over the opening five minutes of the second half.
“We needed (a spark) a lot,” Wheeler said of the big shots to begin the final 20 minutes. “The first half was one of the worst first halves we’ve played all season, so we just needed a spark to get us going.”
Minnesota’s two-point halftime lead began to feel more and more like a distant memory as Ohio State cruised from there, turning the game into a laugher. Ohio State’s lead grew to as many as 27 points in the waning seconds as they improved to 15-6 overall and 8-4 in Big Ten play.
“Obviously, it’s a good win against a quality opponent,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said after the game. “Give Minnesota credit. I think they make the game challenging with some of their mixing of defenses and some of their ability to make shots. I thought our guys, in the second half, were really able to make some shots, and that opened the defense up a little bit. We played with a little more purpose on the offensive end and a little bit cleaner in the second half.”
Holtmann went on to say that other than shots falling, he didn’t look at the game as being two entirely different stories in each half. Rather, he said that as is typical in the Big Ten, the game played out as a process that required Ohio State to remain patient.
“I know people think it was a tale of two halves but I don’t really look at it like that,” Holtmann said. “(Minnesota) went down to the last minute at Wisconsin, they played Iowa and were up four at the half. People think in this league you should just blow people out in the first half, be up 20 … That doesn’t happen in league play, so I just knew it was going to be a little bit of a slow drip, and if we could win some possessions, maybe we could stretch (the lead).”
Ohio State returns to action on Saturday when they host Iowa in Value City Arena. Tip-off for the game is set for 2:30 p.m.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.