MINNEAPOLIS -- This was not a good time to play Ohio State. The sixth-ranked Buckeyes re-energized after their previous game, a loss at home that prompted star Jared Sullinger to describe their on-court look as a bunch of "spoiled brats."
Well, they blew off some steam Tuesday at Minnesota.
William Buford scored 24 points, Sullinger backed him up inside with 23 points and eight rebounds, and Ohio State beat Minnesota 78-68 to move a half-game ahead in the Big Ten standings of Michigan State, the team that had humbled the Buckeyes three days before.
"We played harder today than we did Saturday, for sure. We need to keep up this effort," Buford said.
Buford also had eight rebounds and five assists for the Buckeyes (22-4, 10-3), who lost 58-48 to the Spartans when Buford had only four points on 2-for-12 shooting. With Sullinger drawing double- and triple-teams down low, Buford hit the kick-out jump shots on the wing. He scored his team's first seven points.
"Hopefully from the time leading up, they understood how I felt about this game and what we needed to do to win the game," coach Thad Matta said.
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.
"We were just playing basketball and defended the ball well. Minnesota was missing shots that they normally make. We got what we asked for. We played well," said Sullinger, who went 10-for-12 from the free throw line.
Julian Welch had 11 points, nine assists and five rebounds, and Oto Osenieks had 10 points and four rebounds off the bench for the Gophers, who lost their edge after coach Tubby Smith's scripted mass substitution early in the first half. Giving up 20 straight points will demoralize many teams, particularly against a top-10 opponent such as Ohio State, and that's what happened to the Gophers after a strong start forged a 12-all tie.
"I don't think any of us really know why we do that. We fight back but we can't dig ourselves holes in the beginning of these games, especially a 20-point hole. That's just something we have to work on, coming out strong," Williams said.
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 Nov. 27.
Smith even joked the day before this game, when asked how the Gophers would guard Sullinger, that 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, it just couldn't keep up.
"To be honest, I can't even think of the Michigan State game. We were so focused on Minnesota. This basketball team was different when we came into practice," Sullinger said, adding: "We just need to get that element of toughness back and keep playing hard. Five guys together. When you do that, you're pretty hard to beat."
Same goes for the Gophers.
"I definitely think they were more physical. Coach, he's been preaching all year about toughness and hitting people first. That's something we didn't do in the first 15 minutes," Williams said.
Said Smith: "I know we can be better than this, and that's what's disappointing."
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, he chucked the ball straight at Sullinger's midsection, causing the big guy to tumble backward and giving the Gophers a fresh try.