Gophers topple Buckeyes
MINNEAPOLIS — Blake Hoffarber kept finding himself open behind the arc, where he’s rarely going to hesitate to sling those smooth left-handed shots.
The ball was moving for Minnesota, just the way coach Tubby Smith wants it.
Hoffarber scored a career-high 27 points, with six 3-pointers in the second half, to lead the Gophers to a 73-62 victory over Ohio State on Saturday.
Lawrence Westbrook added 15 points for Minnesota (12-4, 3-1 Big Ten), which bounced back in a big way from a 79-60 defeat at fourth-ranked Purdue earlier in the week. Hoffarber, the conference’s leading 3-point shooter at better than 50 percent, had only three points in that game.
“I was just finishing the play and doing what I was supposed to do,” said Hoffarber, who scored 26 against Northern Illinois on Dec. 15, when he set the school record with eight 3-pointers. “I like to shoot open shots.”
Hoffarber noticed he was rather stagnant against the Boilermakers, so he made an extra effort to move without the ball. That pleased Smith, who criticized his team for firing too quickly at Purdue.
“Nobody’s defense is going to break down after a couple passes,” Smith said. “We’ve really worked on that. That was a big key to our offense. Patience just doesn’t happen.”
Evan Turner was held to five points in the first half before getting going late for Buckeyes (11-5, 1-3). He had 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in 38 minutes, his second game back after missing more than a month while broken bones in his back healed.
Turner is still rounding into form after that scary injury, and collectively the Buckeyes are struggling.
“Honestly, I think you’ve got to take our record out of the equation right now,” coach Thad Matta said. “We’ve got to continue to get better. Obviously, it’s not going to get any easier.”
Ohio State’s David Lighty scored 15 points, but he fouled out. Dallas Lauderdale managed only two points and missed 3 of 5 free throws. The Buckeyes lost their fourth straight away game, and they’ve dropped seven of their last eight Big Ten road games dating to last February.
Coming up Tuesday is a trip to Purdue, which fell Saturday at No. 17 Wisconsin for its first loss this season.
“We’re fine,” Lighty insisted. “We knew it was going to be a tough stretch.”
After missing the last two games with a sprained ankle and then aggravating the injury in Friday’s practice, Ralph Sampson returned to the floor for the Gophers. He gave his replacement in the starting lineup, Colton Iverson, some relief from colliding with the bruising Lauderdale. Sampson finished with two points, six rebounds, three blocks and a calming presence on the court.
The Gophers lack size and creativity in their half-court offense, so they can struggle to score in long stretches when their full-court press isn’t producing turnovers. That happened at times in the first half, when they hit 39.1 percent of their shots. But a surge right before the break spurred by a steal and a block by Sampson got the Gophers going in this physical game.
Some trash talk ignited tempers and forced players from both sides to be separated at mid-court shortly before halftime, and also after the final buzzer. Westbrook and Lauderdale were in the middle of it.
“Whether it came from them or it came from us, I don’t know,” Smith said sternly. “But I’m going to find out.”
The Buckeyes finally have some experience after a series of one-and-done stars left school early, but they didn’t play like a seasoned team in the second half. They failed to adjust to Minnesota’s backcourt trap or quiet the packed Williams Arena crowd on one of those frozen January afternoons the old Barn seemed to be made just for.
Hoffarber’s first 3-pointer of the second half tied the game at 37, and Lauderdale missed a dunk on the next possession. Al Nolen hit a 3-pointer to prompt a timeout by Matta, and the Gophers were well on their way.
They harassed the Buckeyes into turnovers on three straight possessions while taking a 48-38 lead, later stretching that to as many as 16 points.
“Yeah, it wears us out,” Nolen said, “but that’s our type of defense.”
Or else they don’t play.
“The bench is the best motivator in sports,” Smith said.
Minnesota’s defense was huge, but the second half was all Hoffarber, whose stroke disappeared during a sophomore slump. He has returned with a fervor this season, though, after focusing on bringing his elbow in and diversifying his game.
“We helped him a little too much,” Lighty said. “A guy like him, you really can’t help off the penetration. He just got good looks, and he made them.”