Thomas Helps Buckeyes Escape Winthrop Upset
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Deshaun Thomas didn’t have the game he thought he might on Tuesday night, especially after knocking down his first two jumpers with relative ease.
Ohio State’s leading-scorer would misfire on his next nine shots as the Buckeyes struggled offensively against a Winthrop team that wanted “muddy” things up against Thad Matta’s new up-tempo gameplan.
“I told our guys for us to be a good team our game has to be muddy,” said first-year Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey, who coached under the late Skip Prosser at Wake Forrest as well as Xavier under head coach Chris Mack.
“It is sure as heck not a work of art. Coach Skip Prosser used to say, ‘Watching our team play, Jimmy Naismith would be rolling around in his grave.’ It is like a tractor pull sometimes. That is who we have to be.”
After cruising to four straight victories by an average of 30 points a night, the 7th-ranked Buckeyes (9-1) led Kelsey’s Eagles (4-5) by just one point at the half. They were struggling to score the basketball, even when they did get good looks against Winthrop’s pesky defense, but Thomas reappeared when his team needed him most.
Ohio State’s preseason All-American scored 10 points during a crucial three-minute stretch in the second half, going 5-of-5 from the floor. Matta’s Buckeyes escaped an upset in their final test before the marquee matchup with Kansas on Saturday.
“We are looking forward to the game,” said Thomas, who finished with a game-high 21 points and nine rebounds in 37 minutes.
“It will be a big game for us, but we can’t have the start we had for this game. We have to prepare over the next few days.”
Thomas also dished out a career-high four assists, including two fantastic passes to big man Amir Williams, who emphatically swatted a shot and threw down a pair of dunks during a key stretch in the second half.
“Amir has to play with an edge,” Matta said.
“The big thing with Amir is he has to take the next step every time he takes the floor. I can’t explain how important that is for the team. We need his development to continue for the team.”
Williams didn’t contribute much in the first half, but neither did anyone else. The Buckeyes only turned the ball over five times all night, but they shot 34 percent in the first half against a Winthrop team riding high off an upset of Ohio University down in Athens.
“You have to give Winthrop a ton of credit,” Matta said.
“They played to win tonight. Guys were making shots that hadn’t really made shots. We finally had an adjustment where we said ‘guard everybody.’ ”
According to Thomas, the Buckeyes struggled during a recent scrimmage in practice and those issues carried over to the game at Value City Arena on Tuesday night.
“Everyone’s mind was not right starting this game tonight,” Thomas acknowledged.
“Our problems during the scrimmage spilled over to our game.”
Their struggles were most noticeable at the offensive end, but Winthrop did a good job of getting back in transition to eliminate some of the easy baskets Ohio State had been getting off turnovers and defensive rebounds.
They made the Buckeyes play more halfcourt offense than they have had to do in any game since the loss at Duke last month, and the result was not always pretty, at least not for Ohio State.
Junior Lenzelle Smith, Jr. kept the Buckeyes in the game early, scoring 10 of his 14 points in the first half, but Ohio State actually trailed Winthrop 22-18 after a three-point play by Joab Jerome with 6:24 left in the first half.
The Buckeyes quickly ripped off a 13-3 run to recapture the lead at 31-25 on back-to-back threes from Smith and sophomore LaQuinton Ross. It looked like that might be the spark this team needed heading into halftime, but Winthrop scored the final five points of the half to make it a one point game.
“We have to give Winthrop a lot of credit because they came in and played a lot harder and tougher than we did tonight,” Craft said, staring down at the table in front of him.
“With our upcoming game Saturday, then heading into the Big Ten season, we can’t play like we did tonight.”
Winthrop actually regained the lead in the second half, twice, to the dismay of an increasingly irritated crowd in Columbus, but Thomas eventually pulled the Buckeyes out of their offensive doldrums.
“It was just a matter of being ready,” Thomas said.
“I knew the shots weren’t falling. I just had to get ready on the catch and when I had that chance I knocked them down. I got hot there for a second. But it also started on our defensive end when we got like 10 straight stops.”
Matta credited the play of Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott at the defensive end, while Winthrop’s coach referred to Craft as both a tiger and a piranha at the defensive end.
“At Winthrop we don’t call loose balls 50/50 balls, we call them ‘Winthrop balls,’ ” Kelsey said.
“That’s something I stole from Shaka Smart down at VCU, but after tonight we’re going to call them ‘Craft balls.’ ”
Craft and Scott combined for seven assistant and just one turnovers, giving them a 12:1 ratio over the last two games. They also combined for five steals as the Buckeyes forced Winthrop into 14 turnovers.
They outscored Winthrop 34-25 in the second half, with Thomas scoring 14 and Amir Williams chipping in with seven.
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