Whether Ohio State was looking forward to Saturday’s long-awaited rematch with No. 9 Kansas or not, the Buckeyes certainly played one of their worst halves of basketball against Winthrop Tuesday night.
Thad Matta after the win over Winthrop
But seventh-ranked OSU rallied with a strong second half to turn back the upset-minded Eagles 65-55 before 13,707 Tuesday night at Value City Arena.
After winning their last four home games against outmanned opponents by a margin of nearly 30 points a game, the Buckeyes (9-1) stumbled and fumbled through most of the first half. Winthrop (4-5) twice led by as many as four points before OSU led 31-30 at the intermission. OSU shot a frosty 34.5 percent (10 of 29) from the floor in that first half.
The Buckeyes eventually pulled away in the second half and led by as many as 15 points. But any way you cut it, this was probably not what OSU coach Thad Matta wanted to see going into Saturday’s game with the Jayhawks (9-1).
Matta was asked if his team’s recent easy wins and the showdown with Kansas made it easy for his players to overlook Winthrop.
“It’s unfortunate if that was the case,” Matta said. “I think the one thing you have to get your kids to understand is that you only get about 32 guaranteed games. They guys have to understand that you always have to get better.
“I don’t think this team is as good as it is going to be. You have to change the mind-set and come every day to practice and work.”
It was an up and down night for OSU’s Deshaun Thomas. He hit his first two shots for a quick five points. He then missed his next nine before heating up in the second half. He finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, connecting on 7 of 21 shots (including 3 of 10 on threes).
“I felt like it was going to be one of those nights (where shots go in),” Thomas said. “Give big ups to Winthrop. They played hard. They came out more aggressive than us and played it pretty well. It was just one of those nights.”
OSU's Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft after the win over Winthrop
Matta said Thomas had been shooting well in practice of late.
“Deshaun had an amazing practice yesterday,” Matta said. “He was making everything. He made his first two tonight and I was like, ‘All right, a continuation.’ He has a good sense and he kept his composure. He was able to reel some off in the second half.
“He may have forced a couple in the first half when he was struggling. But I like the way he played himself out of it.”
Lenzelle Smith Jr. added 14 points and four rebounds for the Buckeyes. Aaron Craft had eight points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals for the Buckeyes.
“You have to give Winthrop a lot of credit,” Craft said. “They came in and played a lot harder and a lot tougher than we did tonight. It goes without saying with the games we have coming up that we need to continue to get better.”
Derrick Henry led Winthrop with 12 points. Joab Jerome had eight points and 10 rebounds for the Eagles.
“I was proud of our young men,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “We had a good road trip overall. Ohio University was a very good team and our guys walked into a lion’s den down there and got a win. We knew we would have as much of a challenge walking into this venue, against an unbelievably talented team.”
Winthrop hit 9 of their first 18 three-point attempts before missing seven of their last eight as OSU pulled away late.
Deshaun Thomas had 21 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists to lead OSU vs. Winthrop
“They had a couple of great shooters,” Craft said. “On a couple of them – especially early – we had a hand in their face and they still knocked them down. If you give a shooter confidence, that’s kind of the ballgame. Some of them were in transition and that’s on us not having good transition defense and communicating.”
Ohio State started the game by outscoring Winthrop 9-2, but it was a struggle to say the least after that. Thomas got it started with a pull-up jumper and a three off an assist from Smith. A three-point play by Smith put the Buckeyes up 9-2 just over 2-1/2 minutes into the game.
But the Buckeyes went cold, making just two field goals over the game’s next 8-1/2 minutes. Winthrop took advantage. The Eagles tie the game at 14-14 on a layup by James Bourne. They then surged ahead 19-14 after a three by Christian Farmer and a baseline jumper by Bourne with 10:24 left.
“You have to give Winthrop a ton of credit,” Matta said. “They played to win tonight. Guys were making shots that really hadn’t made shots.
“We finally had an adjustment where we said, ‘Guard everybody,’ ” Matta said, joking.
Winthrop still led 22-18 after a three-point play by Joab Jerome with 6:24 left in the half. The Buckeyes rallied with a 13-3 run to go up 31-25. Smith hit a pull-up jumper, Thomas made two free throws, Craft made one, Evan Ravenel hit a pair, Smith hit a three off a Craft pass and Ross canned a three off a Scott assist. OSU led 31-25 with 2:16 left.
But the hot streak ended and the Buckeyes went scoreless the rest of the half. Farmer hit a three and Derrick Henry converted a steal into a layup, trimming OSU’s halftime lead to 31-30. The end-of-half sequence was telling as Scott drove the lane and kicked to Thomas. His three-point shot missed and Craft also missed on a point-blank putback attempt.
“We are looking forward to the Kansas game,” Thomas admitted. “But we can’t have the kind of start we had in this game. All we can do is prepare and get ready for Kansas.”
Thomas added, “We could just tell that people’s minds weren’t right at the beginning of the game. It started in practice. We had a scrimmage and the score was 4-2. We didn’t score … and it just came over into this game. We took them lightly.”
Winthrop twice held the lead early in the second half, the last time on a reverse by Jerome that made it 37-35 with 14:30 left in the game.
This is when Thomas got hot. In a span of three minutes, he hit four shots to put the Buckeyes back in control. He hit an 18-footer off a Craft assist, then hit an 18-footer from the top off a Ross pass. He then cranked a trey from the left wing and added another one from there 40 seconds later off a Craft pass as OSU went up 47-41 with 11:15 left.
“It was just a matter of being ready,” Thomas said. “I knew the shots weren’t falling. I just had to get ready on the catch and when I had that chance (in the second half) I knocked them down. I got hot there for a second. But it also started on our defensive end when we got like 10 straight stops.”
Amir Williams completed a three-point play and Thomas made a pair of free throws for a 52-44 lead with 9:33 left. That was one of Thomas’ career-high four assists.
“Wow, I didn’t know that,” Thomas said after the game. “That’s just me learning the game. My teammates know I am a team guy and I know they’re going to double-team me. I saw Amir under the basket and he finished it. That’s me trusting my teammates.”
Scott then deflected a pass to Craft and got a return pass for a breakaway layup and a 56-47 lead with 7:37 left.
Williams then had back-to-back baskets with a layup off a pass from Smith and a two-handed jam off a Thomas assist in transition. That basket was set up when Smith stole a Winthrop inbounds pass at the other end. OSU finally had some breathing room at 60-47 with 5:47 left.
Williams then tapped out a defensive rebound, which Scott grabbed and raced into the frontcourt. He hit a streaking Smith for the layup to make it 62-47 with 3:56 left in the game.
The Buckeyes held Winthrop without a field goal for 6-1/2 minutes – and forced six missed shots and five turnovers in that stretch – before Gideon Gamble beat the shot clock with a three to cut the lead to 62-50 with 2:40 left.
“We were going back and forth and we had to wait for something good to happen for us to put a run on them,” Craft said. “Shannon did a great job making some plays coming off the bench as well. Our team has to live on the defensive end of the floor. We can’t expect to try and outscore teams. We have to get stops and try and get easy layups in transition.”
The Eagles then hit 3 of 4 free throws to cut it to 62-53 with 1:38 left. OSU held the ball and Scott missed a runner. Bourne was fouled on the rebound. He made 1 of 2 free throws to cut it to 62-55 with 1:02 left.
Scott was then fouled on the inbounds play. He made 1 of 2 for a 63-55 lead. Winthrop’s Andre Smith missed a three and Smith rebounded and was fouled. His two free throws made it 65-55 with 40 seconds left.
* Ravenel chipped in seven points and seven rebounds, while Williams had seven points, three rebounds and two blocked shots in 15 minutes of action.
"Amir has been playing with an edge," Matta said. "He's been taking the next step every time he takes the floor. I can't explain how important that is for the team. We need his development to continue."
* OSU had a season-low five turnovers. The Buckeyes had as few as seven turnovers in three previous games.
* With 1,101 points in his career, Thomas moved into 41st place on the all-time scoring list at Ohio State. He needed 20 points to surpass Mel Nowell for 41st. He has been in double figures in all 10 games this year
* This was the first-ever meeting between Ohio State and Winthrop, which is located in Rock Hill, S.C. The Eagles are the second-consecutive Big South representative to face the Buckeyes after UNC Asheville traveled to Ohio State last Saturday (OSU win, 90-72). Overall, Ohio State now has a record of 15-0 vs. teams representing the Big South
* Against nonconference opponents, Thad Matta’s OSU teams are a combined 117-21 in his nine years. That includes a record of 76-2 at home against nonconference teams, including wins in their last 39 such games. That streak is the fifth-longest active streak in the country.
The two home nonconference losses under Matta were to North Carolina in 2007 and to West Virginia in 2008.
His teams are also 191-21 against unranked opponents. Over the last three years, OSU is 61-1 against unranked opponents with the lone loss at Illinois last January (79-74).
Ohio State owns a 143-12 home record during the Matta era. The Buckeyes are 61-3 in Columbus over the past four seasons.
* The Buckeyes host No. 9 Kansas on Saturday (4 p.m., CBS national broadcast). This will be a rematch of two meetings last year with Kansas. The Buckeyes lost at Kansas 78-67 on Dec. 10 at Lawrence and then also lost to the Jayhawks 64-62 in an NCAA national semifinal game March 31 in New Orleans.
* Click here for the box score for OSU-Winthrop.
Click here for Lee Caryer's column on the steady progression of OSU's Shannon Scott and the impact of his famous dad, Charles.
Click here for a link to Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey's comments on the tragic shootings in Connecticut last week. (He made those comments at the end of his postgame press conference.)