When the Gophers needed a leader Thursday night against No. 11 Ohio State, their newest player of that distinction stepped up in a huge way and delivered Minnesota the signature victory it had been seeking.
No, it wasn’t just guards Andre Hollins or Austin Hollins, who combined to go 5-for-11 from the field, but came up big in the final three minutes. Andre hit a clutch three-pointer, with Austin following with a layup in transition to give the Gophers their first double-digit lead.
But for the majority of the contest, it was junior center Elliott Eliason — whom coach Richard Pitino named the team’s fourth captain the day before — who took the reins early, just as he has done so many times this season.
With Minnesota leading 48-45 with 5 minutes, 15 seconds remaining, Eliason took the ball inside for a layup — the key to the Gophers’ success all night long — to give them the separation they needed in a 63-53 victory over the Buckeyes.
“[Eliason is] playing very confident,” Pitino said. “Maybe I’ll name someone [else a] captain — we’ll have the most captains in the country. He’s playing well, he deserves it. He has gotten so much better and he deserves all the credit because he just works so hard.”
The victory for the Gophers (14-4, 3-2 Big Ten) — their first over a ranked opponent this season — represents something of a breakthrough after struggling to close out games in losses against Michigan and Michigan State and victories over Purdue and Penn State. For the Buckeyes (15-3, 2-3), it was their third consecutive loss after 15 victories in a row to start the season.
“I can’t wait to check my Twitter,” said junior guard DeAndre Mathieu, who had 13 points, four rebounds and five assists. “I know they’re going crazy. Don’t tell Coach Pitino I said that, but I can’t wait to check my Twitter.”
Eliason finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds, his sixth double-double of the season.
Ohio State — a traditionally stingy opponent with the second-ranked defense in the nation — nearly shut down the perimeter, making inside play even more valuable. Eliason went to work as did Mo Walker, who scored two critical baskets in the second half. The Gophers held a 38-20 advantage in points in the paint.
“We knew if we didn’t score inside it was going to be a long night,” Eliason said. “We had to have that interior presence, get it inside-out to be able to compete tonight.”
Minnesota went 1-for-7 from three-point range in a sloppy first half from both teams, and hit only 21.4 percent of their attempts for the game from that distance while coughing up 18 turnovers. But the Gophers were able to stay neck-and-neck with Ohio State — the teams were tied at 29 at the half — by holding the Buckeyes to only 35.3 percent shooting.
With 13:41 remaining in the game, Pitino picked up his first technical at Minnesota after tossing his jacket in response to a double foul call on Oto Osenieks and the Buckeyes’ LaQuinton Ross (a game-high 22 points and five rebounds) and the Gophers trailed 39-38. Then Walker, in the game for Eliason, instigated an 8-0 run with two layups that helped the Gophers to a 46-39 lead.
The Buckeyes were able to bring it back within three with 5:44 left, but the Gophers got big shots from the Hollinses and hit six free throws in the final 1:36 to seal the victory.
“We finally found a way this time to win,” Pitino said.