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Whack-A-Mole: Buckeyes pound Golden Gophers to remain undefeated

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Last Tuesday’s win over Iowa was the 110th in the career of Ohio State forward David Lighty, tied for the most in school history. Sunday, with his team trying to hold off a furious comeback from visiting Minnesota, Lighty fouled out with two-and-a-half minutes remaining in the game.

Now relegated to the bench, the fifth-year senior could only watch as his teammates tried to clinch his record-breaking victory.

It was “the most nervous I’ve probably ever been because I can’t do anything about it,” Lighty said. “I can’t get back in the game to help my team win.”

When junior William Buford blocked a potential game-tying shot as time expired, the No. 2 Buckeyes (16-0, 3-0 Big Ten) sealed a 67-64 victory, despite nearly blowing an 18-point, second-half lead. Lighty finished with a game-high 19 points.

As is often the case in the Big Ten, the game featured a slow, bruising pace for most of the afternoon. Both teams had stretches in which they struggled to score and both committed a lot of fouls, combining for 44 overall.

After finishing his third conference game of the year, freshman Jared Sullinger said he’s learned a lot about what it takes to succeed in the Big Ten.

“For me, it’s physicality,” Sullinger said. “It’s real physical down in the paint and the refs just look at you like, ‘Uh, this is the Big Ten,’ so I’ve learned that you have to be physical.”

Early on it was hustle, not physicality, that Sullinger used to spark OSU. Midway through the first half, Sullinger dove to the floor on the defensive end to force a jump-ball. Although Minnesota retained possession, it left the Gophers with little time on the shot clock and forced them to take, and miss, a contested, low-percentage shot.

More importantly, Sullinger’s play ignited the near-capacity crowd at the Schottenstein Center for the first time all afternoon, and the Buckeyes responded. Starting with a 3-pointer from Buford on the ensuing possession, OSU went on a 10-0 run, culminating with a 3-pointer from freshman Aaron Craft. The Buckeyes opened up a 12-point lead and eventually went to the break up 10.

The Gophers cut the lead to eight with just more than 11 minutes to go. But 3-pointers from both Craft and senior Jon Diebler, coupled with two from Lighty, sent the Buckeyes on a 12-2 run. The run gave OSU a 16-point lead, its biggest of the game.

However, the Gophers answered with a run of their own, cutting the lead to seven with less than six minutes to play. Several Buckeye turnovers and missed free throws, to go along with Gopher baskets down the stretch, shrunk the OSU lead to just four with less than two minutes to go.

An Al Nolen 3-point play with a minute to go cut the lead to three. Senior Dallas Lauderdale then missed two free throws, giving the Gophers possession with a chance to tie the game.

“One thing happens on one end and you can’t run to the other end and compound the mistake,” coach Thad Matta said of his team’s struggles down the stretch. “We’ve got to continue to look and learn and make sure our execution should be at an all-time high.”

On the final possession, when the Buckeyes most needed a stop, the execution was just as the coach wanted. Lauderdale denied Minnesota’s Blake Hoffarber the ball, forcing freshman Austin Hollins to take the desperation 3-point shot, which Buford blocked to preserve the win.

“I was about as proud as I could be of our defense for probably the first 32 minutes of the game,” Matta said. “There were a couple plays that happened and really, really turned the momentum, and we have to be tougher and play through that.”

Forward Trevor Mbakwe led the Gophers with 16 points, but several Gophers made big shots down the stretch. Minnesota made all 19 of its free throw attempts in the second half, and finished 24-27 from the line overall.

It was one of the few times all year that the Buckeyes have been challenged down to the wire, but despite not executing to perfection, Lighty said he was happy with the perseverance his team showed.

“It got a little hectic and we just had to keep our heads,” Lighty said. “Things didn’t go our way, but we stuck in there and found a way to win.”

Sullinger finished the game with 15 points and 12 rebounds, his eighth double-double of the season. Craft, who played 34 minutes off the bench, finished with 11 points and a team-high seven assists.

The Buckeyes will travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., to play Michigan at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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