COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If Thad Matta wanted a wakeup call for his team before its primetime matchup with Kansas, it got one from Winthrop on Tuesday.
The Buckeyes ultimately won the game- their fifth in as many contests since losing to Duke on Nov. 28- but it didn't come pretty as they found themselves trailing their Big South opponent more than five minutes into the second half. It wasn't until OSU made its free throws in the final minute of the game that it was able to finally seal a 65-55 win against the Eagles inside the Schottenstein Center.
"You've got to give Winthrop a ton of credit," Matta said. "They played to win tonight."
In his final tuneup for the Buckeyes' Final Four rematch with the Jayhawks, it looked like it was going to be one of those nights for Deshaun Thomas. OSU's leading scorer heated up early going on a one-man 5-0 run to start the game, but soon went cold, missing his next nine shots.
Thomas' slump coincided with a Winthrop run that saw the Eagles lead by as many as five points and remain tied with the Buckeyes until consecutive three-point shots from Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross gave OSU a six-point lead, which was promptly answered by a 5-0 Eagles run that only let the Buckeyes take a 31-30 lead into intermission.
Things didn't get any easier for OSU in the second half, where five consecutive points from Joab Jerome gave Winthrop a 37-35 lead with 14:31 remaining in the game. But fortunately for the Buckeyes, Thomas soon found his shot.
The preseason All-American rattled off two quick jumpers to put his team back on top, and he was only getting started. Scoring 12 of OSU's 14 points over a five-plus minute stretch, Thomas helped give the Buckeyes a 52-44 lead with less than 10 minutes to go in the game.
"You just gotta be ready when the moment comes. I got hot there for a second," Thomas said. "Everything was going in from there."
Only the pesky Eagles wouldn't go away.
After a Derrick Henry three-pointer brought Winthrop back within three, OSU went on a 15-3 run to finally give itself some distance in the form of a 15-point lead. The Eagles threatened late with an 8-0 run of its own, but free throws from Smith Jr. and Shannon Scott ultimately sealed the game for the Buckeyes in the final minute of play.
After the game, Matta said it was a combination of defense from his point guards and Thomas' hot streak that helped his team escape with a victory.
"Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft, in the second half their defense was probably the key to the game. We had that stretch where we had 10 straight stops and those guys keyed a lot of it," Matta said. "Fortunately Deshaun knocked some shots down and elevated us a little bit."
Thomas led all scorers on Tuesday with 21 points, nine rebounds, and a career high four assists, and was joined in double-digit scoring by Smith Jr., who scored 14 points for the Buckeyes. Henry's 12 points led the Eagles, who out-rebounded the OSU 38-36.
With Winthrop in its rearview mirror, the Buckeyes will now turn its attention to Kansas- if it wasn't already there. The No. 9-ranked Jayhawks will come to Columbus sporting a a 9-1 record and are led by freshman star Ben McLemore and senior center Jeff Withey, and are just months removed from a Final Four matchup that saw them end the Buckeyes' season in the semifinals last March.
Thomas said that his team is excited for the chance to seek revenge on Kansas, who also beat OSU in Lawrence, Kan. last December, and that may have shown up in the form of the Buckeyes overlooking the Eagles on Tuesday.
"A little bit," Thomas said when asked if OSU got caught looking ahead on its schedule. "We looking forward to this Kansas game, it's going to be a big game. It's going to be a big game, national audience, CBS. We can't have the start that we had for this game."