MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—This is the way coach Tubby Smith wanted Minnesota to rebound.
Three days after a humbling defeat to 10th-ranked Michigan State, the Gophers got another chance against a Top 25 team. They went after the ball with gusto, got their shots to fall, and sent an outhustled Ohio State home furious.
Lawrence Westbrook led a typically balanced offense with 15 points, and No. 21 Minnesota salvaged a split in the opening week of Big Ten play by beating the 24th-ranked Buckeyes 68-59 on Saturday.
“It feels good,” Westbrook said. “I wouldn’t say we were, like, depressed about the last game, but we were a little really down. We knew Ohio State was a good team, so once we won this game I think it just builds up our confidence.”
The Gophers (13-1, 1-1) went 8-for-20 from 3-point range; Westbrook was 3-for-5.
The lack of pressure on the shooters, plus the occasional lapse that left a would-be dunker wide open on a backdoor cut, had the Buckeyes (10-2, 1-1) steamed.
“Hats off to Minnesota, but we lost this game on ourselves,” said Evan Turner, who had 21 points and eight rebounds.
Dearly missing junior guard David Lighty, his contagious energy and his 10 points per game, Ohio State made a late charge but trailed by seven or more for the last 16 minutes.
Guard Jon Diebler had 15 points and five steals for Ohio State, but the Gophers held a 42-30 rebounding advantage after getting destroyed on the boards against the Spartans. Damian Johnson had 12 points and six rebounds for Minnesota.
“Lighty’s gone. Lighty’s gone. We can’t keep saying, ‘If Lighty’s there,”’ Turner said. “We’ve got to just take responsibility and grow up. We’ve got to grow up, for crying out loud, and play our roles. Minnesota had a bunch of role players, but they knew how to play. We’ve got to grow up. Don’t even mention Lighty.”
The Buckeyes and Gophers hadn’t faced each other as ranked teams in 27 years. Their last such meeting, here at The Barn, was marred by an infamous brawl that left three Ohio State players hospitalized. Minnesota’s conference title that season had a big black eye on it. This was a typically physical Big Ten game, but not at all like that, though Turner and Minnesota’s Paul Carter yapped at each other after a hard foul by Carter and needed to be separated toward the end.
The Gophers responded to Smith’s exhortations after Wednesday’s 70-58 loss to Michigan State, ringing in their new year with more intensity. This was a hungry effort, with plenty of hustling to be the first to the loose ball and going back up for the rebound after the first and second attempts were fruitless.
“Our guys really got a rude awakening, a lesson in just how hard they have to play,” Smith said.
With point guard Al Nolen on the bench with two early fouls and facing a 22-15 deficit after Diebler drained a 3-pointer, the Gophers switched to a zone defense and prevented Ohio State from running the fast break by making more shots.
Canadian freshman Devoe Joseph, Nolen’s backup, sparked a 16-0 spurt with a layup and a 3-pointer. Jamal Abu-Shamala’s swish from behind the arc with 46 seconds left in the half stretched the lead to 34-24.
Diebler hit two more 3-pointers early in the second half and the Buckeyes pulled within three points, but their momentum didn’t last. Johnson sneaked underneath for an uncontested dunk, and Westbrook’s layup off an underhanded give-and-go from Ralph Sampson pushed the lead back to double digits. Blake Hoffarber finished an 11-0 run with a 3-pointer from the corner, making it 47-33.
“We put so much pride in our defense and, honestly, the last I don’t know how many games we just haven’t had that bite,” Diebler said, reflecting on a 76-48 loss to West Virginia and a 68-65 win over Iowa in the previous week.
Lighty is out for at least another month, and likely two, following surgery to fix a broken left foot a week before Christmas. Without the leader of this senior-less team, the Buckeyes seem to be lacking mental toughness.
“We lost our composure, really, on both ends,” coach Thad Matta said. “We had a couple of bad shots that led to a runout and a turnover and just kind of took our wind out of our sail.”