Ohio State shakes off ugly first half, pulls away to beat Minnesota

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

Whatever happened inside the Ohio State locker room at halftime did not stay there.

For 20 minutes, the No. 18 Buckeyes had tripped, slipped and otherwise limped their way to a two-point halftime deficit against a Minnesota team free-falling toward the Big Ten cellar. The less said about the quality of play to that point, the better.

But whatever was said in that locker room made all the difference. Jamari Wheeler got it going with a 3-pointer to reclaim the lead on the first possession of the second half, finally awakening a slumbering Ohio State offense that would roar to a 70-45 victory.

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Buckeyes a different team against Minnesota in second half

Coach Chris Holtmann downplayed the notion of a game-changing lecture or a massive overhaul. The Buckeyes flipped the script by taking better care of the ball, continuing to impose their will on the Minnesota offense and an offensive tweak against the Gophers' zone defense suggested by assistant coach Ryan Pedon.

Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) and guard Jamari Wheeler (55) try to pump up the crowd during the second half of the NCAA men's basketball game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Value City Arena in Columbus on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. Ohio State won 70-45.

"People think in this league you should just blow people out in the first half, be up 20," Holtmann said. "Come on now. Have you ever played? That doesn’t happen in league play. I just knew it was going to be a little bit of a slow drip and maybe if we could win some possessions we could stretch it.

"I didn’t really look at it as the tale of two halves outside of our shot making. That was much better and we attacked the zone with some more aggressiveness."

Wheeler’s 3-pointer came with the shot clock at three seconds and gave the Buckeyes (16-6, 9-4 Big Ten) a 26-25 lead. They would not trail again, and they took control thanks to an outburst from Zed Key, who typified Ohio State’s first-half struggles. Key had two points and two rebounds in 10 first-half minutes, but he connected on a right-handed hook to push Ohio State ahead 29-27. It followed a Malaki Branham free throw one possession earlier, and with the crowd starting to stir Key found himself matched up against Jamison Battle along the 3-point line as the shot clock waned.

Key stood his ground, forcing a shot-clock violation. As he headed back up the court, he pumped his fist and sprinted toward coach Chris Holtmann, who gave him a high-five. Then Key scored on a left-handed hook, giving Ohio State points on three straight possessions.

"The shot clock violation, that’s a tough defensive stop," Key said. "We needed that. The crowd got into it and we got behind the energy and kept it rolling. We need those plays and I need to be better every game on defense."

Branham picked up from there, burying consecutive 3-pointers to push the lead to 37-29 and force a Minnesota timeout with 15:36 to play. The Golden Gophers (12-11, 3-11) had no further push in them as Ohio State moved to 11-0 this season at Value City Arena.

E.J. Liddell finished with his sixth double-double of the season at 16 points and 10 rebounds. Wheeler had 13, Branham finished with 11 and Key had 9 points and seven rebounds.

Minnesota missed 10 of its last 11 field goals as Ohio State outscored the Gophers 47-20 after halftime. Twelve of Liddell's points and 11 of Wheeler's came after halftime.

Minnesota coach Ben Johnson said the Gophers were essentially daring Wheeler, who entered the night shooting 32.4% (12 for 37) from 3-point range in Big Ten play, to let them fly.

Ohio State Buckeyes guard Jamari Wheeler (55) makes a fast break layup during the second half of the NCAA men's basketball game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Value City Arena in Columbus on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. Ohio State won 70-45.

He went 3 for 6, making all three during the first nine minutes of the second half.

"We dared him to make a couple 3s and he banged in a couple," Johnson said. "He probably did that because he plays with that energy that spirit. When you do that, the basketball gods reward you." 

After the teams traded buckets in the early minutes, Minnesota held a 10-8 lead on an Eric Curry bucket from the left block after a possession of good ball movement. From there, the Ohio State defense would pick up, and the Golden Gophers would miss 10 of their next 11 shots including seven in a row.

The problem was that the Ohio State offense was equally nonexistent, and an early-season nemesis returned in full form: the unforced turnover. While Minnesota was going 1 for 11 from the floor, the Buckeyes were only able to eke out a 17-13 lead while going 4 for 14 from the floor. That four-point lead would disappear as, starting with a turnover on a fast break, the Buckeyes would turn the ball over on seven of their next nine possessions.

Ohio State Buckeyes guard Jamari Wheeler (55) high fives students as he leaves the court following the NCAA men's basketball game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Value City Arena in Columbus on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. Ohio State won 70-45.

In the process, Minnesota turned that 17-13 deficit into a 23-16 lead. Branham broke the desolate spell with a jumper at 2:33, giving Ohio State its first points in nearly seven minutes and making it a 23-19 game. The Buckeyes would score on three of their final five possessions to pull within 25-23, marking their lowest-scoring first half of the season.

Ohio State had only two second-half turnovers and out-rebounded Minnesota 18-11 while shooting 57.1% (16 for 28) after halftime to blow the game open.