William Buford scored 24 points to spark No. 6 Ohio State, and Jared Sullinger backed him up inside with 23 points to guide the Buckeyes to a 78-68 victory Tuesday over Minnesota that moved them a half-game ahead of Michigan State in the Big Ten standings.
Buford also had eight rebounds and five assists for the Buckeyes (22-4, 10-3), who snapped back after a humbling home loss to the Spartans. With Sullinger drawing double and triple teams in the post, Buford was there to knock down the open jump shots on the wing.
Rodney Williams had 21 points, nine rebounds and two blocks for the Gophers (17-9, 5-8), who tumbled into 10th place in the conference race. The Buckeyes pulled away with a 20-0 run over 7-plus minutes of the first half to build a 21-point lead. Minnesota overcame the daze and used a 12-1 spurt to sneak back before the half. The Gophers got within eight points late, but the damage was already done.
Julian Welch had 11 points, nine assists and five rebounds for Minnesota.
This was the wrong time for the Gophers to play the Buckeyes, coming off a 58-48 loss to Michigan State after which Sullinger described them as a bunch of "spoiled brats." Simple laws of averages suggested the Buckeyes wouldn't duplicate their 26-percent shooting performance in that game.
Ralph Sampson III started the game with a soft hook shot over Sullinger, effectively using his two-inch height advantage. So much of the streaky Minnesota senior's success or struggle is based on confidence, and a few minutes later he missed a layup after a deft move inside. Shaking his head during his retreat to play defense, Sampson was late to cover Sullinger's jumper from the wing on the next possession. Soon after he was on the bench with two personal fouls, playing only six minutes in the first half.
Gophers coach Tubby Smith has long used the mass substitution to keep players fresh and establish chemistry among the backups, but that scripted move sure backfired against the athletic, relentless and talent-rich Buckeyes. Giving up 20 straight points will demoralize many teams, particularly against a Top 10 opponent like Ohio State, and that's what happened to the Gophers after a strong start forged a 12-all tie.
By the time four of their five starters were back in the game, the score was already 23-12 and the energy was sucked out of the building. Big Ten steals leader Aaron Craft had three takeaways and five assists in just 12 minutes, and the lead was up to 37-16 near the 3½ minute mark.
The Gophers showed some life after that, cutting the lead to 38-28 and reviving the Williams Arena noise level. But Buford knocked down a bad-angle baseline jumper from almost behind the backboard right before the break to push the lead back to 12.
Sullinger is hard for anyone to handle. The 6-foot-9, 265-pound sophomore, who entered the week third in the Big Ten in scoring and second in rebounding, averaged 16.5 points and 12.5 rebounds over two games against the Gophers as a freshman last season — and that was when they had Trevor Mbakwe.
Minnesota's best remedy against Sullinger's brawn and finishing touch was sitting on the bench, surgically repaired right knee not close to being ready for action again. Mbakwe, the conference's leading rebounder last season, tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Nov. 27.
Smith even joked the day before this game, when asked how the Gophers will guard Sullinger, he was going to give Sampson a mask of Mbakwe's face for him to wear. But while Minnesota made Sullinger work for most of what he got, they just couldn't keep up.
Andre Hollins, coming off a career-high 20-point game in an overtime loss to Wisconsin on Thursday, moved into the starting lineup at shooting guard for the Gophers instead of fellow freshman Joe Coleman, who didn't score a single point in any of the three previous games. Hollins was flustered at times by Craft, but he finished with eight points despite four turnovers.
Hollins drew a roar from the crowd early in the second half when, with nobody open on an inbounds play from the baseline, chucked the ball straight at Sullinger's midsection, causing the big guy to tumble backward and giving the Gophers a fresh try.