COLUMBUS, OHIO – As Dawson Garcia dismantled Ohio State's defense with a career-high 36 points Sunday, it was clear this game meant a little more to him than it being the Big Ten opener.
It also wasn't just that Garcia had his best game previously in an upset in Columbus. This game was personal with Garcia's former college roommate Jamison Battle on the opposing side.
Garcia eventually got the best of the individual matchup despite Battle's 25 points, but the Gophers couldn't overcome a 22-point deficit in the first half in an emotional 84-74 loss Sunday.
"It was competitive," said Garcia, who broke the opponent scoring record at Value City Arena in front of 10,481. "But it was a tough one to swallow just because of everything on the line. It was also the first Big Ten game and we came in here with a lot of confidence."
Garcia and Battle didn't speak before the game, but they're still close friends. Their parents hung out together before attending Sunday's game.
"I got nothing but respect for [Garcia] because I've been through a lot with them," Battle said. "He's a special guy and a special player. It was good to go out here and compete against him."
The Gophers (5-3) beat Ohio State 70-67 for their only road win last season behind Garcia's then career-high 28 points. In the rematch Sunday, Garcia reached that mark in the second half alone, but the Buckeyes saw Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle Jr. and Battle combine for 67 points.
After leading 42-20 at one point in the first half, the Buckeyes (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten) led only 72-66 after Cam Christie's three-pointer with 3:23 remaining. But Battle hit the first of his team's three consecutive threes that would stretch the lead to 81-70 within two minutes to play.
"The fight was there in the second half, but because of the hole, it was so hard get over that hump," Johnson said. "We have to do a much better job with our starts, especially taking care of the ball."
The Gophers outscored Ohio State 46-42 while shooting 55% in the second half, but they put themselves in a huge bind early with nine of their 13 turnovers in the first half.
Battle's layup made it 58-40 around the 14-minute mark in the second half, but Garcia scored 16 points during a 24-12 run that cut it to 70-64 with just under four minutes left.
Garcia had 10 consecutive points in the second half at one point. And Battle also had eight points in a row to answer for the Buckeyes. This was a big-time scoring duel that could be revisited when the Gophers host the Buckeyes on Feb. 22 at Williams Arena.
"He's a big-time competitor," Johnson said about Garcia. "And he really, really wants to win. He puts a lot into it, so you see that emotion when he's out there playing."
The Buckeyes, who won their sixth consecutive game Sunday, seemed to have so far completed a turnaround from last season's 13th-place finish in the Big Ten, just ahead of the Gophers.
Johnson's Gophers still have a long way to go before experiencing a bounce-back year, but they showed with Garcia's effort Sunday this could be a very competitive Big Ten team even without Battle.
"We showed what we were about later on," Garcia said. "We have to start like that every single game. That's when we can reach our full potential as a team."