Buckeyes roll past Gophers

Mark Heller

While the Minnesota men’s basketball team held up “Thank you, fans” signs and sang the Minnesota Rouser, Ohio State conducted a small, subdued celebration on the floor of Williams Arena following Saturday’s 82-72 win over the Gophers.
Later on, during a postgame press conference, Buckeyes coach Jim O’Brien’s voice was scratchy and a little hoarse. While his team was whooping it up inside the locker room, O’Brien did his best to reflect on the transformation from losers to a share of the Buckeyes’ first Big Ten championship since 1992.
“A lot of it started two years ago with the arrival of Scoonie Penn,” he said. “Two years ago, we only had one player in our program who experienced an NCAA game. It was him, and he wasn’t playing for us.”
Flash back to 1997-98. After 11 seasons of moderate success as the leader of Boston College, O’Brien left and seized the chance to come to the Big Ten.
He won eight games his first year in Columbus.
Armed with Penn, Michael Redd and Ken Johnson, the Buckeyes finished second in the Big Ten to Michigan State last season, but got hot and rolled to the Final Four.
“The mentality (Penn) brought on a daily basis at practice and pushing everyone towards accomplishing something a little bit greater,” O’Brien said. “With his arrival, he helped change a lot of the attitudes towards winning.”
Saturday’s win gave Ohio State a share of the Big Ten title with the Spartans and the No. 1 seed in this weekend’s Big Ten tournament. It also signaled a complete about-face from a program going nowhere fast.
This could also be a signal for the Gophers and coach Dan Monson. Monson enjoyed success at Gonzaga before coming to the Big Ten. Monson won more than eight games this season. He, too, is trying to make believers in the program.
“It makes you search who you are and what you’re about,” Monson said. “I told the team the other day, ‘It’s really easy when you’re winning to have character and be a competitor. This is when you have to check who you are and check yourself.’ Right now I feel good about myself, this staff and these players.”
Monson’s character and effort test got through to his players. It helped they had laid an egg against Michigan State on Thursday.
On the verge of another blowout, the Gophers twice cut a double-digit lead down to five. Even with the Buckeyes sporting a 17-point lead with five minutes left, Minnesota wouldn’t fold.
“The difference was 17 didn’t turn into 25. It went back down,” Monson said. “Maybe with four minutes to go, the game wasn’t in jeopardy, but we haven’t had that character in games all the time, and I hope that’s something we can build on.”
The Gophers gave a gutsy effort for the last home game of the regular season, but they were also playing the sixth-ranked team in the country. With two All-America candidates in the backcourt (Penn and Redd) and a Big Ten title on the line, the Buckeyes pulled away.
But for Minnesota not to throw the game away when it was on the verge of doing so could be the first of several small turns for the better.
“We all played hard and really scrapped it out,” junior forward Kyle Sanden said. “It was probably one of the scrappiest games we’ve played all season. This is a total step forward. A couple weeks ago, things were starting to digress instead of move ahead.”
O’Brien knows a thing or two about change, both for the worse and the better. While the Buckeyes celebrated in black championship hats, the Gophers strutted around knowing at least something went right — even if it took everything else to go wrong.
“A year ago, everything was kosher,” Sanden said. “I can’t even explain how things have changed, but it might be for the better.”

Mark Heller covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]