CHICAGO — After a season highlighted by the performance of freshmen, a senior stole the show for Ohio State in its first game of the Big Ten Tournament.
Guard Shannon Scott scored a career-high 21 points and tallied five rebounds and six assists as the sixth-seeded Buckeyes topped 11-seed Minnesota, 79-73, on Thursday night in Chicago. The Buckeyes’ standout freshman, guard D’Angelo Russell, struggled early but finished strong to lead all players with 23 points.
Scott said his big night stemmed from a focus on effort going into the game.
“(I) just wanted to play hard, really,” Scott said. “That’s the main thing we all try to focus on, is just playing as hard as we can.”
The Georgia native added that the Buckeyes’ balanced scoring attack helped them get an edge on Minnesota.
“It just keeps the defense honest,” Scott said after the game. “I mean they can’t just single him (Russell) out and focus on him the whole game.”
The game was tied at halftime before OSU (23-9, 11-7) outscored the Golden Gophers (18-15, 6-12), 44-38, in the second half. The win sends the Buckeyes through to the tournament quarterfinals, where they’re scheduled to play the No. 3-seed, Michigan State, Friday night at the United Center.
Scott said OSU aimed to peak in the postseason after the Buckeyes lost to No. 6 Wisconsin, 72-48, to close the regular season on Sunday.
“Our biggest thing was after our senior night loss, just to play our best basketball now,” he said. “We went out at the (Schottenstein Center) not playing how we wanted to play. So we had to move on past it and get going again.”
Coach Thad Matta said he agreed that picking up a win fresh off the disappointing loss to Wisconsin was a key for the Buckeyes, especially with the NCAA Tournament looming.
“The only thing I asked them to do was attempt to play their best basketball and fight and claw,” Matta said after the game. “I didn’t think we played perfect tonight by any stretch, but we played well enough to win. In the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘We really need this win for a lot of different reasons.’”
OSU’s victory makes Matta the winningest coach in program history. The victory was his 298th since joining the Buckeyes 11 years ago, moving him ahead of Fred Taylor.
Scott said it was a “great feeling” to help his coach reach a career milestone.
“He (Matta) has done a great job with this program,” Scott said. “Turning it around the way he did, he got to the Final Four many times, but he wants to keep winning.”
OSU jumped out to an eight-point lead less than 11 minutes into the game, but that proved to be the biggest lead of the half. Minnesota went on a 10-2 run to tie it at 26 before the teams headed to the locker room with the score level at 35.
Both teams shot worse than 50 percent from the field in the first half, while OSU shot just 1-of-12 from 3-point range, including an 0-for-5 clip from Russell.
Even after a slow start, Matta said he expected his leading score to come out strong late in the game.
“He (Russell) wants competition, he wants to play the best,” Matta said. “That makes him special. I knew he was struggling in the first half a little bit scoring the ball, but I had great confidence that he would get going, and sure enough he did.”
Sophomore forward Marc Loving, who had been held scoreless in three of six games since returning from a three-game suspension on Feb. 14, scored seven points in the first half.
Both teams came out firing in the second half, but a Russell layup followed by his first 3-pointer of the game put OSU ahead, 47-42, with about 16 minutes to play.
After his late-game heroics helped seal his team a win, Russell said he wasn’t daunted by the thought of playing in his first collegiate postseason game.
“I’ve played a lot of big games in my life,” he said. “It’s win or go home, anything can happen. Whoever our opponent is, we are just going to treat it like another game and trust the system.”
Two free throws from Scott and two more from senior center Trey McDonald helped OSU gain a 13-point lead with less than 10 minutes on the clock. The big lead was short lived as a three-point play by Minnesota senior guard DeAndre Mathieu pulled the Golden Gophers within two less than five minutes later.
But that proved to be as close as Minnesota could come, as the Buckeyes scored 14 of the game’s final 24 points.
The Buckeyes’ matchup with Michigan State is scheduled to begin about 25 minutes after the conclusion of Maryland’s 6:30 p.m. matchup with Indiana.