Ohio State was reminded of an important lesson as it began tournament play: when it doubt, get the ball to Jared Sullinger.
After senior Jon Diebler and junior William Buford had primarily shouldered the load as the Big Ten season came to a close, the freshman forward reminded his teammates why he was named first-team all-conference. The top-seeded and No. 1 Buckeyes fended off an upset charge thanks in large part to Sullinger, who put up 20 points and 18 rebounds in a 67-61 overtime victory.
Sullinger’s efforts helped the Buckeyes (30-2) overcome the deliberate pace put forth by the Wildcats (18-13). After being held to four points in the first half, Sullinger scored the rest of his points courtesy of the charity stripe, going 16 for 18 from the line in the final 25 minutes.
“You’ve got to make your free throws,” Sullinger said. “I don’t care if you’ve got big hands, small hands, medium-sized hands, you’ve got to make your free throws regardless of what kind of ball it is or if you’re hurt. You’ve just got to make your free throws, especially with the way I play.
“I play physical and I’m going to draw some fouls. Free throws are a big part of my basketball game.”
Most importantly, he was perfect on 10 free-throw attempts in the overtime period as the Buckeyes outscored the Wildcats by a 15-9 margin. During those five minutes, he was not credited with a single shot attempt as he was literally fouled every time he touched the ball.
In the process, 6-9 forward Davide Curletti and 6-11 center Luka Mirkovic each fouled out of the game and each committed their final fouls at key times.
With Northwestern ahead 52-51, Sullinger drew Curletti’s fifth foul with exactly one minute remaining. He missed the first free throw and hit the second to set what would be the score at the end of regulation.
Once the Buckeyes reached the extra stanza, they wasted no time forcing the ball inside to the 6-9 freshman. Nineteen seconds in, he drew a foul from Mirkovic, who entered overtime with just one foul. One possession later, Sullinger again drew a foul from Mirkovic and hit the ensuing free throws to pus his team’s lead to 56-52.
After Mirkovic hit a wide-open three-pointer with 3:36 remaining to cut his team’s deficit to one, he was again whistled for a foul as he unsuccessfully attempted to box out Sullinger following a three-point miss from freshman Aaron Craft.
The junior was whistled for the foul, and in frustration he spiked his mouthpiece to the Conseco Fieldhouse floor and drew a technical foul. With 3:05 remaining in the extra stanza, Mirkovic was finished. From there, it fell upon 6-8 junior guard John Shurna to try and body Sullinger in the paint.
He would foul the OSU freshman twice down the stretch as the Buckeyes pulled away.
For good measure, Sullinger also chipped in a game-high 18 rebounds for his 15th double-double of the season while playing the full 45 minutes.
After hitting a record 14 straight three-pointers against Wisconsin in the final regular season game, OSU was just 3 for 15 (20.0 percent) from deep.
“Obviously we’ve been shooting the ball really well lately but that’s what makes us dangerous: we’ve got guys who can put it on the floor and when we’re not making shots we can still go inside and drive to the basket,” Diebler said.
The Buckeyes held a five-point halftime lead despite an uneven half of play thanks to a 9-0 run to close the stanza. With the Wildcats ahead by a game-high four points at 23-19 with 3:07 left, freshman reserve Deshaun Thomas started the run with a basket in the paint on his team’s next possession.
From there, Craft would take over. He gave his team the lead two possessions later with OSU’s first three-pointer of the half, making it 24-23 with 1:24 remaining. After following that with a runner in the paint to push his team’s lead to three, his final play of the half would have to hold up through a video review.
The Buckeyes got the ball with 13.8 seconds remaining after a Northwestern foul, and junior guard William Buford’s three-point miss drew only iron. With nearly every player on the court clustered in the paint fighting for a piece of the basketball, it was the smallest scholarship player on the OSU roster who came up with the tip – twice.
After the first one did not fall, Craft somehow got his hands on the ball again just before the buzzer sounded. His efforts gave the Buckeyes a 28-23 lead and allowed them to salvage some momentum heading into the break.
“If there’s an opening I can see I can take advantage of it,” Craft said. “Sometimes it just takes us a little bit to get in our offense and get into a flow. They didn’t want to leave Jared’s body and that was a big key. There were lanes open and we were fortunate to get to the rack and finish today.”
In the stanza, the Buckeyes had just one assist but did not turn the ball over. The two teams combined for 11 fouls in a stanza that lasted about 37 minutes in real time. At one point, the two teams went 8:32 without a whistle and the teams combined to score 19 points during the stretch with the Wildcats holding a 16-14 lead at its conclusion.
Craft finished with 17 points on 6 of 11 shooting as one of the few offensive bright spots for the Buckeyes. Diebler needed until the extra stanza to extend his streak of games with at least one three-pointer to 48 but still chipped in 13 points. Shurna led the Wildcats with 23 points while Michael Thompson had 15 and Drew Crawford added 12 points and 10 boards.
After going 17 for his last 20 from three-point range in his last two games, Diebler was just 1 of 5 from deep in this one. He sported some black tape on his right, shooting wrist but said it had no impact on his performance.
“I’m fine,” he said. “It’s really not a big deal at all. I probably won’t even wear the tape tomorrow. I’ll be fine.”