Led by a 25-point season-high from graduate forward and former Golden Gopher Jamison Battle, Ohio State beat Minnesota 84-74 in its Big Ten opener Sunday night at Value City Arena.
The Buckeyes (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten) got off to a hot start while the Golden Gophers (5-3, 0-1 Big Ten) could never recover from a dominant performance by Ohio State in the first half.
“It’s all about the start and it’s all about how you finish,” Battle said. “I think the biggest thing for us is going out there, playing and believing in ourselves. Coach often preaches that we have to get out to a good start.”
The game opened with each team swapping turnovers, but 3-for-3 shooting from distance by the Buckeyes, including two triples by Battle, broke the streak and put Ohio State up seven early.
Two made baskets by Minnesota junior guard Mike Mitchell Jr. cut Ohio State’s lead to six with 12 minutes remaining, before sophomore guard Bruce Thornton scored eight straight for the Buckeyes, extending the lead to 12.
Freshman forward Scotty Middleton made an immediate impact with 5 straight points off the bench for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State continued to pour in the points with a near-poster dunk by sophomore guard Roddy Gayle Jr. giving Ohio State a 22-point lead with just under three minutes to play in the period.
Minnesota battled back in the final minutes before half, with an 8-0 run capped off by a last-second dunk by sophomore forward Pharrel Payne trimming Ohio State’s lead to 14 heading into the locker room.
The Buckeyes won the turnover battle early, scoring 11 points off nine first-half Golden Gopher turnovers, compared to Minnesota’s 5 points off six turnovers.
The trio of Gayle, Battle and Thornton managed to outscore the entire Minnesota team in the first half — each scoring at least 10 points for the Buckeyes.
“We hit big-time shots,” Thornton said. “I have trust in Jamison and Roddy to make shots that I believe in practice and anytime in the game, so when I was ready, I felt comfortable making shots.”
After the half, the teams traded baskets until Middleton finished off a 7-0 run with a triple, putting Ohio State up by 20 with just over 15 minutes to play in the contest.
Golden Gophers junior forward Dawson Garcia kept Minnesota in the game after the break, scoring 16 points and grabbing two rebounds in the first 10 minutes of second-half play.
Garcia finished with a career-high 36 points for the Golden Gophers, a record for an Ohio State opponent at Value City Arena.
Ohio State retained a 14-point lead on Minnesota midway through the second half, despite a drought where the Buckeyes went nearly seven minutes without a field goal.
Minnesota continued to chip away at the Buckeye lead down the stretch of the half, cutting the lead to single digits for the first time in 25 minutes with just six minutes remaining in the game.
Three consecutive 3-pointers from Battle, Thornton and Gayle put the game out of reach for Minnesota in the final minutes of the game.
Buckeye center Felix Okpara was also a force to be reckoned with defensively, matching his career-high of five blocks for Ohio State.
“Length is a critical force,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “He’s getting better at guarding guys out on the floor like Garcia, and he still has to get better at that, but his length we saw last year is the difference when he’s on the floor.”
Thornton finished the half with 14 points for the Buckeyes and had a team-high 26 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line.
Ohio State looks to extend its winning streak to seven when it takes on Miami (OH) at 7 p.m., Wednesday at Value City Arena. Big Ten Plus will broadcast.