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By Marcus R. Fuller / St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published January 16 2014

Gophers bounce No. 11 Buckeyes in men's basketball

MINNEAPOLIS – There was no telling how the Minnesota men’s basketball team would respond after blowing an opportunity to win the biggest game in the short tenure of Richard Pitino.

Minnesota’s overtime loss at Michigan State on Saturday had players more anxious than ever to prove themselves Thursday against No. 11 Ohio State at Williams Arena.

That led to 10 turnovers in the first half against arguably the nation’s best defensive team. But the Gophers did their own pressuring to force 10 turnovers in the second half en route to an impressive 63-53 victory.

After falling to Syracuse and Michigan State this season, the Gophers (14-4, 3-2 Big Ten) finally got their first signature win.

It was the first victory over a ranked opponent since Minnesota shocked No. 1 Indiana at the Barn under coach Tubby Smith last season.

That win likely got Smith’s team into the NCAA tournament. Thursday’s victory over Ohio State (15-3, 2-3) puts Minnesota in position to be at least on the bubble for March Madness.

The shortest and tallest players on Pitino’s roster had the biggest impact, as 5-foot-9 junior DeAndre Mathieu and 7-foot junior Elliott Eliason scored 16 of their 25 points combined in the first half.

Mathieu finished with a team-high 13 points and five assists. Eliason had his sixth double-double this season with 12 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks.

Each was trying to make a statement that he belonged in the conversation when it came to the best point guard and center, respectively, in the league.

Mathieu outplayed Ohio State All-America candidate Aaron Craft in the first half. Eliason had a significant edge over Buckeyes center Amir Williams.

LaQuinton Ross scored 22 points for Ohio State.

The Gophers were able to stick with the Buckeyes without much help from their top two scorers, Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, who had more turnovers (three) than points (two) combined in the first half.

Austin Hollins, who finished with six points, has struggled in all but one Big Ten game this season. Pitino had talked about needing his senior captain to contribute more than just as a defensive stopper.

That didn’t happen Thursday, but the Gophers still got contributions from others, such as Oto Osenieks, Malik Smith and Mo Walker.

Walker’s back-to-back baskets, including a three-point play, gave Minnesota a 43-39 lead with 11:46 left.

The Buckeyes pulled within 48-45 on a three-point play from Sam Thompson with 5:44 remaining, but Minnesota pulled away, finishing the game on a 15-8 run.

The Hollinses combined for nine points during that late rally. Andre Hollins scored eight of his 10 points in the second half.

The blown leads that plagued the Gophers in losses to Michigan and Michigan State this season didn’t recur Thursday night.

The game was another example of how wide open the Big Ten race is. Ohio State, ranked as high as No. 3, has lost three straight games after starting the season 15-0.

Michigan State entered the season as the heavy favorite to win the conference title.

The Spartans, who have been without injured center Adreian Payne for two games, still sit atop of the standings, but they were fortunate to escape Minnesota on Saturday in East Lansing after trailing by 10 points in the second half.

The Gophers proved against Ohio State that they should be considered at the top of the second tier of the Big Ten, right after Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa.

If Minnesota wants to move higher, it will have to pull off another upset in the next two games, at Iowa on Sunday and against Wisconsin on Jan. 22 at home.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.