Ohio State was lifeless.
Outscored, outplayed and outhustled in the first 20 minutes against Minnesota Saturday, the Buckeyes found themselves trailing 28-18 at the break after their lowest scoring output in a first half this season.
Then Sam Thompson found his touch.
The OSU junior forward exploded in the second half against the Golden Gophers, tallying 16 of game-high 19 points after the break to launch the Buckeyes to a 64-46 victory.
“I’m getting into a pretty good rhythm right now,” Thompson said after the win. “It’s a desperation game from here on out. Every game we play is desperation, every game we play is a must-win situation. When you play like you have to win, when you play like there’s no tomorrow, good things are going to happen.”
That’s exactly how the No. 24-ranked Buckeyes (22-6, 9-6, tied for fourth in the Big Ten) looked in the second half against Minnesota (17-11, 6-9, tied for seventh in the Big Ten).
Flying around the court, Thompson was everywhere — throwing down three thunderous dunks that ignited the crowd and all but dashed the Gophers’ hopes.
“He’s a good player. I love Sam, I recruited him at Florida and I think he’s a really good player,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said after the game, referring to when he was an assistant coach at Florida under coach Billy Donovan from 2009-11. “And I wanted him at Florida. So I knew the potential and he’s a good player.”
Thompson finished the game shooting 7-12 from the field, aided in the second half by OSU’s ability to force turnovers and get out and score in transition.
“It’s funny because I told our guys look, we got zero steals at halftime. We end up with seven. Our activity defensively wasn’t there,” OSU coach Thad Matta said postgame. “Sam — we got out in transition and they lost him a couple times and he’s pretty good at finding the seams there.”
At times this year, the Buckeyes have struggled to score, but in their last two games, Thompson has averaged 15 points, and shot 64.7 percent from the floor, including 55.5 percent from three-point land.
Since he was inserted into the starting lineup Feb. 1 against Wisconsin in lieu of junior guard Shannon Scott, Thompson and the Buckeyes are 6-1, with the lone loss coming to then-No. 15 Michigan Feb. 11, 70-60, in Columbus.
As the regular season begins to come to a close and OSU fights for seeding in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, it might be Thompson who breaks out and becomes that second scorer the team has desperately needed all year, aside from junior forward LaQuinton Ross.
“I hope that he is. I think that Sam is one of those guys (who) in his three years here, has worn a lot of different hats for this program. From his freshman year, to his sophomore year, to where he is now,” Matta said. “The fact that he scored the ball at a pretty high level the last few games, I hope he can continue that because that position definitely opens up a lot of things for us.”
Thompson’s heroics were a big part of the 25-5 second half run the Buckeyes used to put Minnesota away. Ross said after such a terrible first half, the team (6-22 shooting, eight turnovers) knew it needed to come out with something extra.
“We knew in the first half we didn’t come out with the juice, we didn’t come out playing the way that we usually play,” Ross said. “So going into halftime when we was down 10 … I just think everybody knew in their mind they were going to come out and play hard.”
Play hard they did, outscoring the Gophers 46-18 in the final 20 minutes while shooting 56.7 percent.
“The first half was definitely the worst we’ve played (this season). Coach Matta said that at halftime,” Thompson said. “We came out in the second half, we played some of the best basketball. I don’t know if it was the best, but through stretches we definitely played some of the best ball we’ve played.”
If the Buckeyes hope to make any noise in the postseason, it appears Thompson could hold the key to that success.
Currently sitting in a tie for fourth place with No. 15 Iowa and the final first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament — set to get underway March 13 in Indianapolis — the Buckeyes are scheduled to take on Penn State (13-14, 4-10, tied for 11th in the Big Ten) Thursday at 7 p.m. in State College, Pa.
The Nittany Lions beat OSU, 71-70, in overtime last month at the Schottenstein Center.
But the way OSU finished off Minnesota Saturday made Matta realize his team has one very important thing.
“They’ve got heart. Because I told them after the game, ‘you cashed a chip in.’ Because this team has not done that this season,” Matta said. “I like the fact that they came back and fought and clawed and put the run together. Shows that these guys got a lot of heart, which is good.”