The foundation for the potential upset was already set when Reggie Hearn drove the left baseline and got off a clean layup, a shot that slowly rolled to the back of the rim before becoming temporarily stationary.
“I thought it was going to go down,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said.
Had Carmody been right, Northwestern would have tied the game at 59 with 2:28 remaining, and the Wildcats would have made yet another play to keep the already nervous Value City Arena crowd of 15,842 fans uneasy.
Had Carmody been right, perhaps Northwestern would have been able to build off of its big bucket and prevent No. 13 Ohio State from going on a late run before capturing the crucial 69-59 win.
But Carmody was wrong. The ball rolled off the side of the rim, Deshaun Thomas grabbed the rebound and fed a running Aaron Craft, who drove all the way to the hoop for a bank shot to extend Ohio State’s lead by to four.
From that point, Ohio State (18-6, 8-4 Big Ten) went on to score the next eight points – which amounted to a 12-0 run – before closing out the late victory to bounce back from two consecutive losses.
And yet another chapter in the Northwestern-Ohio State series was written like many of the previous ones. Like Hearn’s shot, the Wildcats (13-12, 4-8) were close, but they couldn’t ultimately get the job done. Ohio State has not lost to Northwestern at home since 1977.
“Every time you play these guys it is close,” said Craft, commenting on Northwestern’s slow, yet efficient pace that has continually kept it close with the often heavily favorite Buckeyes. “It definitely wears on you more mentally than physically… We’ll take a win any way we can get it.”
Northwestern went ahead 44-41 when Kale Abrahamson knocked down a three-pointer with 14:05 remaining in the game, but Thomas – who had been a non-factor offensive up to that point – put the Buckeyes on his back.
Scoring 17 of his game-high 22 points after Abrahamson’s three, Thomas became the scoring source Ohio State failed to identify for most of the game. Lenzelle Smith Jr. added 12 points, Sam Thompson had 11 and Amir Williams added 11 for the Buckeyes.
Tre Demps led Northwestern with 16 points, hitting four of the Wildcats’ 11 three-point buckets, and Abrahamson finished with 13. In all, Northwestern made 11-of-26 three-point field goals (42.3 percent).
“Shots weren’t falling (early) that I normally it was getting a little frustrating,” Thomas admitted. “But I was kind of frustrated because they were knocking down shots and I take defense very proudly now. I wasn’t made on the offensive end. I think I showed a lot of maturity and when my name was called and my teammates needed me, I executed down at the end and got it done.”
For a while, it whether the Buckeyes would get it done was in question.
After Demps hit a 30-foot buzzer-beater to close out the first half and tie the game at 30 at the break, Northwestern came out of the locker room and made triples on three of its first five possessions of the second half to take a 39-37 lead with 16:18 remaining.
The Buckeyes then made only two shots in the next six minutes, falling behind 48-43 when Dave Sobolewski made a layup with 11:30 remaining and the Wildcats held onto that advantage as the clock ticked under nine minutes.
Thomas, however, then scored six-straight points to bring the Buckeyes within two at 51-49 with 6:46 remaining in the game. Reserve point guard Shannon Scott then knocked down a three to put Ohio State ahead 52-51, the team’s first lead since Williams broke the tie by scoring the first bucket of the second half.
Northwestern battled back to tie the game at 57, but Thomas started Ohio State’s final run with a bucket off an in-bounds play to put Ohio State up for good.
“They played hard,” Thomas said of Northwestern. “They cut real well, they are really scrappy on defense. They came out ready to play, knocked down shots when they needed and that’s big for them. It shows how hard they play.”
With the victory, Ohio State pulled into a third-place tie with No. 20 Wisconsin (8-4) – who fell in overtime to Minnesota on Thursday night – and No. 4 Michigan (8-4), two games behind first-place teams No. 1 Indiana (10-2) and No. 8 Michigan State (10-2).
“It was a close game,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said. “Now its time to get ready to go against on Sunday against Wisconsin.”
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