When the first half of a late-February game ends with your club only scoring 18 points, your coach is likely to be very unhappy. That's especially true for the, shall we say, occasionally animated Thad Matta, coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes.
"Definitely the worst we've played—Coach Matta said it at halftime," junior Sam Thompson said after Saturday night's win over Minnesota, as reported by the Northeast Ohio Media Group's Ari Wasserman. "Up to this point in the season, we hadn't come out and just laid an egg, and we did that in the first half."
Ohio State's 18 points were scored on a feeble 27 percent shooting, including only four two-point baskets in 15 attempts. But read that quote again and note the operative phrase: "Saturday night's win over Minnesota."
The Buckeyes exploded for 46 points in the second half, matching the Gophers' total for the entire game, and walked away with a 64-46 victory that serves as a gut punch to Minnesota's NCAA tournament hopes. What it may have done for Ohio State was bring to light a previously underreported recent trend of second-half successes.
It's been nine games since OSU's four-game January losing streak ended, and the Buckeyes have won seven of those encounters. In each of the seven wins, they have decisively won the second half, a trend that will make them highly dangerous in March if it holds.
Earning Their Coffee
In the film adaptation of the David Mamet play Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin's abrasive corporate trainer admonishes a java-quaffing salesman that "coffee is for closers only." (Warning: Video contains strong language.)
The Ohio State players must be getting their own version of that speech at halftime, because they've come out with serious surges at some point during their run of successful finishes.
|Ohio State's 2nd-Half Surges, Last 9 Games|
|Opponent||2nd-Half Margin||OSU 2nd-Half FG%||OSU 2nd-Half Run||Final Score|
|Illinois||38-30 OSU||54.2||9-0||62-55 OSU|
|Penn St.||34-30 PSU||28.0||10-2||71-70 PSU|
|at Wisconsin||30-25 OSU||47.8||14-7||59-58 OSU|
|at Iowa||45-36 OSU||54.2||17-9||76-69 OSU|
|Purdue||36-24 OSU||50.0||19-4||67-49 OSU|
|Michigan||44-30 UM||40.7||7-0||70-60 UM|
|at Illinois||28-16 OSU||47.4||12-1||48-39 OSU|
|Northwestern||39-27 OSU||40.0||14-2||76-60 OSU|
|Minnesota||46-18 OSU||56.7||17-0||64-46 OSU|
|OhioStateBuckeyes.com box scores|
Offensive aggressiveness has been a key, and that requires confidence that has sometimes been fleeting. After the win over Northwestern, Thompson told CentralOhio.com's Rob McCurdy:
The difference between this game and a few games in the past is we kept playing. We didn't get down on ourselves after a mistake. We didn't get down on ourselves after we missed a shot. We didn't get down on ourselves after they scored. We kept playing basketball and kept finding ways to make plays.
Whether it's Marc Loving against Illinois, Thompson against Minnesota or Ross against Purdue, someone's managed to mash the accelerator and pull the Buckeyes away from their opponents. In the seven wins, OSU has outscored its opponents 262-176 in the second half, an average margin of 12.3 points per game.
Fixing a Hole
There is one caveat to second-half success, however: It often follows dreary opening stanzas.
"In this league, you need to play like every game is the biggest game of your life," Matta said to Wasserman. "If you're not ready to compete, fight or execute, you're going to be embarrassed."
A few of Ohio State's recent first halves have been just that: embarrassing.
|Ohio State's 1st-Half Woes, Last 9 Games|
|Opponent||1st-Half Margin||OSU 1st-Half FG%|
|Penn St.||35-31 OSU||46.4|
|at Wisconsin||33-29 Wisconsin||38.5|
|at Iowa||33-31 Iowa||48.0|
|at Illinois||23-20 Illinois||32.1|
|OhioStateBuckeyes.com box scores|
A team with seven upperclassmen in the nine-man rotation should not struggle so hard to get out of the gates, but Matta still hasn't found a potent scoring option to complement LaQuinton Ross.
Perhaps Thompson is that man. He scored 16 of his game-high 19 in the second half against Minnesota, and the Buckeyes are 6-1 since he replaced Shannon Scott in the starting lineup.
Or perhaps not. The Northwestern and Minnesota games were his first double-figure scoring efforts in more than a month, despite being his sixth and seventh starts. He's made nine three-pointers in his last six games after sinking only 12 long shots in the first 22.
Thompson is, however, the player most equipped to attack opponents in transition, a key trait on a team that thrives on forcing turnovers. He sounds like he's ready for the task.
"I think I am getting into a rhythm," Thompson told Wasserman. "It's a desperation game from here on out. Every game we play is a must-win situation, and when you play like you have to win and you play like there's no tomorrow, that's what happens."
Proving you can close in the regular season may earn you some coffee, but in a tournament setting, it's all about making sure you're the one pouring the last cup. Ohio State simply needs to stay thirsty.
For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his new podcast, check out The Back Iron.