There was a very ugly basketball game at Williams Arena late Thursday, and the uglier it got, the better it was for the Gophers.
Eight minutes into the evening’s entertainment, the Gophers had taken four shots and made eight turnovers. That is supposed to put a team in a serious early hole.
Not on this night. The Gophers trailed 9-6 after the early turnover drill, based on a zone defense that had the visitors from Ohio State looking like the No. 11 team in the Big Ten, rather than No. 11 in the country.
Ohio State managed to stumble through the backcourt pressure and frontcourt zone to get a 29-29 split at halftime. And then came a second half in which Richard Pitino’s club wanted this game so much more than the Buckeyes that even as it stayed close, there wasn’t much doubt.
The Gophers clawed at the Buckeyes to force 13 turnovers and beat them to most every loose ball. The final was 63-53 for the Gophers, and it was an accurate reflection of the energy the two teams showed.
When it was over, and Pitino had his first victory over a ranked team, there was a haunting question:
What is it that Ohio State’s Aaron Craft brings to the court that has ESPN analyst Dan Dakich gushing over him as if he’s seeing point-guard greatness?
Craft, a senior in his fourth Big Ten season, wasn’t close to the best point guard in the Barn. He played solid defense to take away the three-point line from the Gophers, but Craft had nothing to offer against the Gophers’ zone. He can’t shoot and he wasn’t able to step inside the zone and set up teammates.
Craft finished with seven points, four assists, five turnovers and one steal in 35 minutes.
DeAndre Mathieu, a junior college transfer in his first Big Ten season, put pressure on the Buckeyes on both ends of the court. He finished with 13 points, five assists, three turnovers and three steals in 33 minutes.
“DeAndre was great tonight,” Pitino said. “He made so many good plays.”
Ohio State played the first half with three turnovers. Pitino told Mathieu and Co. to crank it up in the second half. They forced 10, to go with 7-for-22 shooting for the Buckeyes.
For the night, Ohio State was 18-of-51 for 35.3 percent. A reporter from Columbus asked if I’d ever seen an Ohio State team that was such a poor collection of shooters. Not having been around for peach baskets, the reply was, “No.”
A big reason for that is Craft. When your alleged star can’t shoot, that creates a considerable obstacle.
Coach Thad Matta watched his team throwing rocks and decided he had no choice but to try to go with a smaller lineup that might have a chance to make a shot.
This gave the Gophers a rarity in competitive games this season: a post game.
Pitino had been given a technical by the comical officiating crew for firing his coat in response to a foul on Oto Osenieks. One free throw was made and Ohio State led 39-38 with 13 minutes left.
Mathieu found Mo Walker and “Slim” muscled in a field goal. Next trip, Osenieks fed Walker and he turned it into a three-point play. That made it 43-39 for the Gophers, and allowed Mo to leave to a roaring ovation.
Nobody in the announced sellout crowd of 14,625 was complaining, though — not with Elliott Eliason returning. Elliott was a wild man all night; wild on the boards, wild in owning the lane, wild a couple of times in responding to the wacky officiating from the crew of Curly, Larry and Moe.
Eliason finished with 12 points, 13 rebounds and a couple of blocks. He would have been the star of the game, if not for the manner in which Mathieu outplayed Craft.
“We struggled early; I think we had to get adjusted to their pressure,” Mathieu said. “It was more us worrying about them coming at us, more unforced turnovers. When we settled down, we played our game.
“We’ve been in awesome battles this year in Big Ten play. We let Michigan go, we let Michigan State go. Finally, we finished.
“It feels really good, man. Really good.”
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org