The junior scored 25 points, including 10 during a game-breaking, 15-point second-half run, to lead the 11th-ranked Buckeyes past the Badgers 58-49 on Tuesday night.
“That’s easily the best player we’ve played because of how he can get his own shots,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “Thomas is good. He was tough on the two-point jump shots — real tough — and around the basket. He can attack. He’s so strong.”
The 6-foot-7 junior, averaging 20 points a game, hit 10 of 17 attempts from the field including a variety of step-back jumpers, slashes through the lane and shots he muscled over defenders. He also had four assists in what coach Thad Matta called his finest game with the Buckeyes.
“Without a doubt, this is probably right there at the top just because of his overall effectiveness,” Matta said. “He was also very good defensively as well.”
Wisconsin had controlled the tempo with deliberate passing, finding the open man and making 11 of 28 3-point attempts.
With Ohio State (16-4, 6-2 Big Ten) trailing 41-39 with 11:26 left, Thomas took charge.
Thomas’ fake and 10-foot jumper over Ryan Evans tied it at 41, with Thomas then giving the Buckeyes the lead on a drive through the lane and finger roll after Evans had been called for a charge at the other end.
It didn’t stop there, as the Buckeyes’ defense stepped up the pressure to force bad shots while the offense started clicking.
During the 15-0 run that went from the 13:01 mark to under six minutes left, the Badgers were 0-for-7 from the field with three turnovers as everything went Ohio State’s way.
Thomas hit another basket, this time on a drive, before LaQuinton Ross popped in a 3-pointer from the left wing. Thomas then took a pass from Shannon Scott on the fast break and cut in for a layup. While Wisconsin continued to misfire at the other end, Thomas then jousted with Evans, forcing him to step back before hitting a soft, fall-away 16-footer to push the lead to 52-41 and bringing a crowd of 16,911 to its feet.
Thomas said Matta had said the Buckeyes, who shot 64 percent from the field in the second half, had to be more forceful. The transition game during the 15-0 run was a prime example.
“Coach said we’ve got to be aggressive, get out in transition. Play our style of game,” he said. “We knew that Wisconsin wanted to slow it down but we had to get out there and punch them in the mouth and start it with a fast tempo. And that’s what we did.”
Ben Brust finally ended the 7:11 drought with a three from the top of the circle.
After Wisconsin narrowed the gap to five points on a three by Jared Berggren, Scott stole the ball and went the length of the court for a three-point play.
The Badgers never got closer than six points again.
Thomas had come to Ohio State as one of the top schoolboy scorers ever in his native Indiana. He had little interest in defense.
He’ll never be mistaken for his pesky teammate Aaron Craft, who can change a game with his defense. But he’s working at it.
No one is more amazed by the transformation than Matta.
“He was exhausted the last five minutes of the game,” he said of Thomas. “We talk about his growth. Two years ago he would have just shut down completely on the defensive end and saved it for the offensive end. But I thought he kept defending down there.”
The victory moved Ohio State into third place in the Big Ten and dropped Wisconsin two games off the pace set by co-leaders Indiana and Michigan (6-1).
Traevon Jackson, the son of Buckeyes great Jimmy Jackson, led the Badgers with 12 points in the arena where his dad’s jersey hangs from the rafters. Berggren added 11 points.
Craft had 13 points for the Buckeyes while creating havoc by draping himself over the Wisconsin guards.
The Badgers took more shots behind the arc (28) than they did inside of it (making just 8-of-24). They also didn’t shoot a free throw, the first time that’s happened in Ryan’s 12 years and 390 games in Madison, Wis.
Wisconsin forward Mike Bruesewitz dissected the second-half disaster and tossed a compliment to the Buckeyes.