Gophers can’t stop dominant Buckeyes

Ohio State has won 11 straight games while Minnesota has lost five in a row.

by Zach Eisendrath

The Minnesota men’s basketball team had no answer for Ohio State freshman sensation Greg Oden, but it didn’t have an answer for many other Buckeyes players either.

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Despite 22 points and 10 assists from junior guard Lawrence McKenzie, the Gophers couldn’t match the second-ranked Buckeyes superior talent and fell 85-67 on Sunday afternoon at Williams Arena.

Oden, who is projected to be one of the top-two picks in the NBA Draft should he go pro, led Ohio State with 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in just 21 minutes of work.

But the 7-foot, 280-pounder was only part of the story as three other players scored in double figures for a deep Buckeyes team that leads the Big Ten in almost every offensive category.

“Oden’s a big part of what they do, but they have guys on the perimeter who can all shoot, can all drive to the basket and make plays,” McKenzie said. “That’s what makes them so good.”

While Ohio State (24-3 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) did plenty right, Minnesota didn’t necessarily help its own cause.

The Gophers (9-18, 3-10) had 15 turnovers, including many while the game was in the balance late in the first half. And their inability to take care of the ball got so bad that interim coach Jim Molinari even benched his two point guards – junior Limar Wilson and redshirt freshman Kevin Payton.

The benching of the two players who usually handle Minnesota’s point guard duties left McKenzie to be the Gophers’ main ball handler in the second half, and it hurt Minnesota’s offense.

McKenzie, who set a team record for most three-pointers made in a season with 73, besting Michael Bauer’s 71 made during the 2002-2003 season, had 16 first-half points which kept the Gophers neck and neck with the Buckeyes for nearly 15 minutes.

And when 13 of those points came in a span of less than four minutes, Molinari started calling McKenzie a first-team All-Big Ten guard.

But when McKenzie started playing point guard in the second half, his offensive production took a hit and he scored six points in the final 20 minutes of play.

“That took a lot away from his scoring,” Molinari said of moving McKenzie to the point. “I think that was a huge part of the game. We don’t have a lot of margin for error. When we were competing in the game, we weren’t turning the ball over as much.”

And without McKenzie shouldering the scoring load, the Gophers just couldn’t keep pace because they lacked an inside game against the Buckeyes’ intimidating interior defense.

The intimidating presence of Oden, who has been compared to NBA legends Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon because of his defensive prowess, made Minnesota tentative in the paint from the outset.

Gophers junior center Spencer Tollackson missed his first five shots and scored just four points on 2-of-9 shooting. Junior forward Dan Coleman also struggled, scoring four points on just 2-of-8 shooting.

Freshman center Bryce Webster was the only Minnesota player who seemingly made Oden work inside.

Webster, who was recruited by Ohio State and even played alongside Oden at the USA Youth Development Festival in San Diego two years ago, didn’t back down from the freshman superstar.

He made Oden miss his first four shots and was a big reason why the Gophers were in the game as long as they were. For his efforts, Molinari said Webster will likely start the rest of the season.

But Webster and the rest of the Minnesota big men could only stay with Oden so long. Oden eventually found his offensive groove and opened up the perimeter for Ohio State, allowing the Buckeyes to pull away in the second half.

With the win, Ohio State will likely be the top-ranked team in the country after No. 1 Florida lost Saturday.

While the Gophers came into the game believing they could compete with the Buckeyes, Minnesota sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala said the Buckeyes are deserving of their ranking because they just have too many weapons to stop.

“The whole game, until the end, we really thought we had a chance,” he said. “We can play with anyone; we just need to play our game. We just didn’t get the stops. Credit to them, they just hit shots.”