Ohio State fell to Minnesota, 71-57, in its final regular season road game Saturday in Williams Arena in Minneapolis. Kosta Koufos fronted the Buckeyes with 17 points and Jamar Butler added 13.
With the loss, Ohio State drops to 17-12 on the season and now is in a tie with Minnesota for fifth place in the Big Ten with a league mark of 8-8. Minnesota improves to 18-10 overall.
Ohio State trailed by only 24-23 at the half, but Minnesota’s Lawrence McKenzie scored all 20 of his points in the second half, highlighting his final regular-season home game. McKenzie made three 3-pointers and went 7-for-7 from the foul line. Lawrence Westbrook added 16 points and six rebounds, and Dan Coleman chipped in 13 points for the Gophers.
Blake Hoffarber scored 10 points, and Minnesota held a 37-24 rebounding advantage to keep alive a slim chance of making the NCAA tournament. The Gophers, who had only three turnovers in the second half, finish with road games against Indiana and Illinois.
The Buckeyes close out the season with two home dates. Tuesday, Ohio State welcomes No. 19 Purdue to Value City Arena at 7 p.m. Fans are encouraged to wear gray as part of the “Gray Haze” promotion. Ohio State wraps up the regular season vs. Michigan State at noon March 9.
The win Saturday was Minnesota’s first quality win under coach Tubby Smith. The Gophers came into the game 0-9 against teams in the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index, the formula that helps the NCAA determine which teams to invite for at-large bids.
McKenzie, Coleman and Spencer Tollackson were taken out of the game in the final minute to a standing ovation and a “thank you, seniors!” chant from the fans.
Ohio State football recruit Willie Mobley, a defensive end from Eden Prairie High School in the southwest Twin Cities suburbs, sat behind the Buckeyes bench wearing a scarlet-and-gray T-shirt featuring his future team.
The first half was certainly not a showcase of NCAA tournament-caliber teams. The Gophers had 11 turnovers, shot only 30.4 percent from the field – 7-for-23 and 2-for-11 from 3-point range – and struggled to complete even basic passes against Ohio State’s full-court zone defense.
After one of Minnesota’s miscues, one frustrated fan near the court yelled, “This is NOT a hard press!”
The Buckeyes scored 11 points off those turnovers before halftime, but that figure could have been much higher. Their biggest lead was four, when a free throw by Koufos made it 17-13 with about 5 1/2 minutes left.
The Gophers led 24-23 at halftime, which – judging by their past performance – was all they needed. They’re 15-0 this season when they take a lead into the locker room, an advantage they didn’t have when they played Ohio State on the road in January. They fell behind 19-3 to start that game.
Minnesota warmed up with the second-half basket switch, and McKenzie was the catalyst. He led a 11-minute surge that might have been his team’s best such stretch of the season, considering the opponent and the calendar. It’s March, remember?
McKenzie, a product of Minneapolis Henry High School who first played at Oklahoma before transferring home, hit his first 3-pointer to break a 26-all tie early in the second half. That started a 27-14 run by the Gophers, capped by a short jumper from McKenzie that stretched the lead to 56-42 with less than 7 1/2 minutes remaining.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.