Buckeyes Survive In Evanston

No. 1 Ohio State needed every second of Saturday night's contest before it could breathe a sigh of relief. The Buckeyes improved to 22-0 after fighting off an upset challenge on the road from Northwestern. Jared Sullinger led the way with 21 points and what proved to be the game-winning free throw.

What would a road win for No. 1 Ohio State be without a little drama?

If things continue like this, we might never find out. The nation's last unbeaten team saw a 13-point second-half lead disappear and had to watch a last-second Northwestern heave from just across halfcourt graze the rim before it could exhale with a 58-57 victory.

"This was a great game for us," OSU head coach Thad Matta told the Ohio State Basketball Radio Network. "They got a rhythm and got going on us. It was one big play after another by both teams. Fortunately for us we were able to make the play down the stretch."

The Buckeyes (22-0, 9-0 Big Ten) led for nearly the entire second half but needed some free throws in the final seconds to earn the victory against the Wildcats (13-8, 3-7).

OSU's 52-52 lead was erased by a three-pointer from NU's Michael Thompson, whose basket with 3:52 remaining gave his team its first lead since the 3:50 mark of the first half. The Buckeyes immediately answered when senior guard Jon Diebler picked the perfect time to extend his streak of consecutive games with at least one three-pointer to 38.

The senior drilled a deep trey from the top of the circle on only his third shot attempt of the game to help his team regain the lead at 57-55 with 3:36 remaining. After the next three possessions saw both teams miss their shot attempts, the Buckeyes had possession with less than two minutes remaining when junior guard William Buford was whistled for carrying the basketball at the 2:04 mark.

The Wildcats made the Buckeyes pay for their fourth turnover of the game. With the shot clock winding down, Thompson drove against OSU senior forward David Lighty and connected on a runner inside the paint that pulled his team even at 57. The basket came with one second left on the shot clock.

The Buckeyes then committed a second consecutive unenforced turnover when freshman point guard Aaron Craft's pass to Diebler in the backcourt skipped through his hands and out of bounds, giving the home team the ball with 1:14 remaining.

Again holding the ball until the final seconds of the shot clock, Craft made things worse by fouling Thompson with seven left on the shot clock, giving the Wildcats a fresh shot clock. Now with 46.2 seconds remaining, NU tried to get a layup on a backdoor cut. This time, Lighty saw it coming and came up with the steal, giving his team the ball with about 15 seconds remaining.

Without calling timeout, the Buckeyes pushed it up the floor and Diebler found Sullinger on the left block. He went up and was fouled, but only connected on the second of two free throws to set the final score.

The Wildcats called timeout with 3.5 seconds left to draw up their final play. The Buckeyes then burned two timeouts – one while both teams were still seated, the other after NU took the court.

"We wanted to see what they were doing or what they looked like they were going to do," Matta said of the second timeout. "We didn't put anybody on the ball. The kicker was Jon never went back to his man. He was wide-open back there but (he) didn't get the ball. With 3.5 (seconds left), that's so much time. We just wanted to make them catch it going that way and chew up as much time knowing they're going to get a shot off. We just had to challenge it."

It marked the fourth time in five Big Ten road games that OSU watched a double-digit second-half lead shrink to one possession or disappear entirely.

Sparking the NU rally was a seven-point play with about eight minutes remaining. The Buckeyes held a 51-39 lead and looked to be in control, but Thompson drilled a three-pointer as OSU senior forward Dallas Lauderdale was whistled for a foul. After the officials looked at the play during the ensuing media timeout, they noticed his left elbow went to the throat of NU's Davide Curletti and saddled him with an intentional foul.

Curletti hit one of his two free throws and JerShon Cobb hit a three-pointer on the ensuing possession to make it 51-46.

"I don't know if I've ever seen a seven-point play (before)," Matta said.

Sullinger, Craft and Buford combined for 45 of their team's points. Sullinger led the way with 21 while Craft had 13 and Buford 11. Thompson led the Wildcats, which were playing without leading scorer John Shurna as he recovers from a concussion suffered earlier this week, with 16 points on 6 of 13 shooting.

Although a basket by Lighty with exactly nine minutes remaining in the first half pushed OSU's lead back to a game-high seven points at 17-10, it was the Wildcats who headed into the break with the momentum but not the lead.

The home team closed the half on a 15-10 run to pull within two points at 27-25 after having taken the lead three separate times. The Wildcats got things rolling following Lighty's basket, fashioning an 8-0 run capped by a three-pointer from Cobb with 4:44 remaining that made it 18-17 in his team's favor.

The teams combined for baskets on their next five possessions, the end result of which was a tie game at 23 with 2:30 left after OSU freshman forward Jared Sullinger dunked a Jon Diebler miss. The Buckeyes grabbed the lead with a trey from freshman reserve Aaron Craft with 1:42 remaining and held on for the two-point halftime advantage.

Craft's three-pointer was his team's first of the game after missing its first three attempts.

With the Wildcats holding the ball and slowing the game, the Buckeyes helped those efforts by committing six personal fouls in the final 8:05. Meanwhile, the Wildcats finished the half with six team fouls and did not commit any in the final nine minutes.

The Buckeyes finished the half with only four three-point attempts. Sullinger and senior forward Dallas Lauderdale combined for 11 of the team's 22 shots, although one of Sullinger's team-high nine shots was from behind the arc.

OSU's 27 points marked its lowest total in a half this season.

"We wanted to push the tempo," Matta said. "Their deal was they weren't shooting until there was less than five on the shot clock. I would rather somebody punch me in the face than do that."

By the time the Buckeyes reached halftime, seven top-25 teams had already suffered upsets. Comprising that list were No. 5 Connecticut, No. 8 Villanova No. 9 BYU, No. 9 Syracuse (tie), No. 13 Texas A&M, No. 17 Wisconsin and No. 24 Florida.

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