But with this week's flurry of upsets in the Big Ten, being prepared for a close game didn't make it any more comfortable for the No. 16 Buckeyes when they trailed the Wildcats 49-48 with 4:06 remaining in the game.
Having won its last two games in Welsh-Ryan Arena by a combined three points, Ohio State, however, built off past experience to make the plays needed down the stretch to close out the 63-53 road victory.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. scored season-high 24 points and Deshaun Thomas added 17 for the Buckeyes, who pulled into sole-possession of fourth place in the conference standings, a half-game over Michigan after the Wolverines were upset at Penn State Wednesday.
Ohio State is now only a half game behind second place teams Michigan State and Wisconsin, and two full games behind Big Ten-leader Indiana. The Buckeyes hope to at least remain in the conference's top four, which would give them a first round bye in the Big Ten tournament.
A three-pointer by Smith – his career-high sixth of the game – put the Buckeyes (21-7, 11-5 Big Ten) back ahead of the Wildcats at 51-49 moments after they gained their late lead, a score that set up a 15-4 run to close out the game.
Tre Demps scored 14 and Dave Sobolewski added 13 for Northwestern (13-16, 4-12), who have now lost six-straight games and its second to Ohio State in a two-week span.
The Buckeyes led 29-22 at halftime, a lead gained in large part because of Smith's fast start. The junior guard made four three-point shots in the first 20 minutes and accounted for 14 of Ohio State's points in the first half, but the rest of the Buckeyes converted on only 5-of-18 shots during the period.
Smith made three three-pointers in the game's first three minutes, and Ohio State got off to a quick enough start to build a double-digit lead at 20-10 in the game's first 8:47.
The Buckeyes, however, managed only nine more points in the final 11:13 of the first half, a span during which Ohio State made only three of their 14 field goal attempts. Smith had 14 of the Buckeyes' 29 points at the break.
Smith scored the second half's first four points from the free throw line and the Buckeyes got out to a 33-22 lead with 18:50 remaining in the contest. But Northwestern, as it does so well, slowly chipped into Ohio State's lead before an off-balance three by Kale Abrahamson gave the Wildcats their first lead of the game at 41-40 with 10:12 to play.
Ohio State has a bye week this weekend before travelling to top-ranked Indiana on Tuesday. The Buckeyes have now won three-straight games since being blown out by Wisconsin 71-49 on Feb. 16.