By Max Olsan
Brice Sensabaugh, Ohio State’s leading scorer, was ruled out with knee soreness Friday ahead of the team’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament quarterfinal game against Michigan State. However, that didn’t stop the No. 13 seed Buckeyes from prevailing with their third win in as many days to become the lowest seeded team to ever reach the tournament semifinals.
“With Sensabaugh out, I thought they played better,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “That’s not an insult to him. Sensabaugh is a helluva player. I just felt maybe they played different without him.”
In Sensabaugh’s absence, fellow freshman Bruce Thornton, who averages 10.3 points per game, exploded for 21 points.
“Bruce has hit a whole ‘nother level with his play,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “I think we haven’t had a lot of kids on this team who have seen us have some success in the past. They trust each other now and are now living with the results.”
Thornton was not the only Buckeye to step up against the Spartans. Roddy Gayle Jr. stepped up by scoring a career high 15 points, and Justice Sueing chipped in with 14 of his own, helping lead the Buckeyes to their first victory over the Spartans this season.
Every time the Spartans began to close the deficit, the Buckeyes seemed to have the answer. The Spartans cut a 13-point deficit to six and forced a Buckeye timeout with 4:27 to go in the second half. Out of the timeout, Gayle drove to the rim, got fouled and calmly made two free throws. On the next possession, he followed up his free throws by knocking down a 3-pointer, pushing the lead back to 11.
“I really just stayed aggressive and tried to play aggressive and play the best winning basketball,” Gayle said. “Yesterday’s performance gave me more confidence than I had, knowing my teammates and my coaches have the same belief in me.”
Sueing’s 14 points were just two above his season average of 12. But he garnered the game’s highest plus-minus rating, with a plus-20 rating, meaning when Sueing was on the floor, the Buckeyes outscored the Spartans by 20 points.
“Him coming out aggressive, we love that,” Thornton said. “He keeps the defense on their toes.”
With the three-headed monster of Sensabaugh, Gayle and Sueing leading the charge, the Buckeyes took control of the game’s pace of play and stifled the Spartans’ three-point shooting. The Buckeyes held the Spartans to 18.8% from three while shooting 52.6% themselves.
“Obviously we have some legs that are a little bit fatigued, but I think more than anything confidence trumps fatigue,” Holtmann said. “I felt like we needed a game like this. We’ve had a couple of games at their place that got in the high 70s. This game was for us. I thought we were efficient on offense.”
The Buckeyes’ story continues Saturday when they face the top-seeded Purdue Boilermakers.
Max Olsan is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.