As a senior for Ohio State, Aaron Craft had never lost three straight games — until now.
This isn't exactly the kind of new experience that Craft will treasure from his college career.
Elliott Eliason had 12 points and 13 rebounds to help Minnesota muscle past the 11th-ranked Buckeyes for a 63-53 victory Thursday night, the first time Ohio State has lost three games in a row since February 2009.
"We've been knocked down. We've lost games. But this is the first time this is ever happened since I've been here. So it's not a good place to be," said Craft, who committed a game-high five turnovers and finished with seven points on 2-for-6 shooting.
DeAndre Mathieu had 13 points, five assists and three steals for the Golden Gophers (14-4, 3-2 Big Ten), who gave new coach Richard Pitino his first signature win. They did it by backing down the Buckeyes and owning the area around the basket, posting a 38-20 advantage in points in the paint and a 39-24 rebounding edge.
LaQuinton Ross scored 22 points for the Buckeyes (15-3, 2-3), who lost to Minnesota for the first time in seven meetings since 2010. The other four Ohio State starters combined for only 19 points, and the conference's second-worst free throw shooting team went 11 for 18 from the foul line.
Coach Thad Matta had a stern message for his players afterward.
"He just told us, 'Right now we're at rock bottom,'" Ross said. "We can't get no lower than this."
The Buckeyes lost last week at Michigan State and then at home to Iowa, hardly blemishes on their resume, but they're going to have to snap out of this slide soon to keep up in the top-heavy Big Ten. The Buckeyes fell to 25-4 following losses over the last five seasons.
Matta seemed at a loss. The 10 turnovers in the second half and the shot selection throughout the night especially irked him.
"I'll take aggressive errors, but there's got to be some type of logic behind it," Matta said. "For whatever reason, we didn't have what we needed to be able to win a basketball game in the end."
Eliason wasn't the only one working inside for Minnesota. His backup, Mo Walker, converted consecutive spin moves to draw fouls both times, good for a five-point spurt. He even had a steal to set up a fast break a few minutes later. Oto Osenieks added eight points, all near the basket.
Then the Gophers went to their guards to break open the game down the stretch.
Andre Hollins swished a corner 3-pointer inside the 3-minute mark to make it 55-46, and Austin Hollins followed with a steal and a layup to push the lead to double digits.
"They were the tougher team, and that's how you win in the Big Ten," Craft said.
Ohio State's man-to-man defense, which allowed a Big Ten-best 57.6 points per game entering the night, a figure also tied for sixth-stingiest in the nation, made open jump shots and driving lanes nearly nonexistent for Minnesota in the first half. The Gophers had eight turnovers in the first 8 minutes, but they came up with enough steals, screens and back-door cuts to produce some offense.
Eliason, the 6-foot-11 junior whose post game has begun to emerge as a valuable complement to his shot-blocking and rebounding ability, powered up for a layup in traffic with 3:16 left before the break and drew a foul on Marc Loving. Eliason missed the free throw, but Osenieks soared in for the putback and a 27-21 lead for Minnesota.
Ross, Ohio State's leading scorer, was up to his usual all-over-the-court contributions. He flicked in a floater from the lane with 2 seconds remaining to forge the tie. Then, early in the second half, the lanky 6-foot-8 junior swished consecutive 3-pointers for the Buckeyes to give them the lead again at 38-36. He didn't have enough help, though.
The Buckeyes have a softer stretch in the schedule ahead: at Nebraska and then home against Illinois and Penn State to finish the month. But back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Iowa loom at the beginning of February. And the way they're playing now, the opponent hardly matters.
"We can stay here and feel sorry for ourselves, and that's the easy thing to do," Craft said. "Nebraska's not going to feel bad for us. They probably wish we could play tomorrow. So we have to do some soul-searching. We have to find a way to get better, individually and as a team."
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