Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Despite an off night from Deshuan Thomas and a furious Nebraska rally late, Ohio State was able to get another road victory thanks to big nights from Amir Williams and Lenzelle Smith Jr and some solid free throw shooting.
In their first meeting this season, Ohio State blew the doors off of Nebraska, led by Deshaun Thomas single handedly outscoring the Cornhuskers in the first half. That wasn't in the cards in the rematch, but Ohio State was able to overcome some poor first half shooting and a surprisingly stout Cornhusker interior defense to grind out the victory. The Buckeyes constantly attacked the basket and got to the free throw line, shooting 28 free throws, making 23, which gave them the cushion they needed.
Ohio State led by only 9 at halftime, but held a 15 point lead deep into the second half until a furious Nebraska rally cut the deficit to 5 with 2:38 left in the game. Strong team defense and a clutch performance from Aaron Craft was just enough to ice the win for the Buckeyes.
Lenzelle Smith Jr led the way with 21 points on a perfect night shooting from the field, and Deshaun Thomas added 15, but on 18 shots. Aaron Craft had an outstanding all around game with 14 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 blocks, while Amir Williams rode an exceptional first half to 7 points, 7 boards and 3 blocks.
The Buckeyes were able to get off to a fast start despite poor initial shooting. After a Lenzelle three pointer, Ohio State was able to jump to an early 12-3 lead thanks to their ability to get out in transition, rebound, and get Amir Williams to the free throw line. The Buckeyes were a flawless 5-5 from the stripe early, and even though Deshaun Thomas had missed his first 5 shots from the field, it felt like it was only a matter of time before the Buckeyes blew the game wide open.
Instead, Nebraska promptly went on a 13-2 run to grab a 15-14 lead. The Cornhuskers were able to seize momentum thanks to the tenacious interior defense of Nebraska BIG man Andre Almeida. Despite only blocking 3 shots combined in his previous B1G efforts, Almeida came up with 3 more early in the first half, and redirected multiple other shots, preventing Ohio State from driving into the lane and causing turnovers.
The Buckeyes went on a small run of their own to close out the half, thanks to Thomas drawing two and-ones, and with Almedia heading to the bench for foul trouble. A 19-19 game with 5:52 left in the first half became a 27-19 Buckeye lead with the behemoth Brazilian mostly on the bench.
The Buckeyes led 32-23 at halftime without playing especially well. If not for some uncharacteristically great free throw shooting (10-10), the Buckeyes may have even trailed at the half. Perhaps most impressively for Ohio State, they held Nebraska without a free throw for the entire first half, after holding the Wisconsin Badgers without an attempt for their entire previous game. Ray Gallegos and Shavon Shields led Nebraska with 6 points each at the half.
That 9 point lead ballooned to 13 with 12:50 left in the game, with Nebraska unable to develop any kind of offensive consistency, it appeared the Buckeyes had the game well in hand. Instead, Nebraska began to fight back, overwhelming Ohio State on the glass, especially with Almeida and Brandon Ubel, who was scoreless in the first half and finished with only 6. Despite being one of the worst rebounding teams in the Big Ten, and trailing by 4 in the rebounding margin at halftime, Nebraska finished the game with a 34-30 advantage on the boards, with Ubel and Almeida combining for 17. Amir Williams, after an outstanding first half where he tossed up a 6-5 2 steals and a block stateline, was held to only 2 rebounds the rest of the way.
David Rivers, a sophomore swingman who averages only 5 points a game, came up big for Nebraska as well, grabbing 3 offensive rebounds and hitting a clutch 3 on his way to a 13 point, 6 rebound performance. The Cornhuskers rode second chance opportunities and hounded Thomas to climb back into the game, but sent the Buckeyes to the charity stripe too many times and couldn't get a basket when it counted. They closed the deficit to 5, but were able to get no closer, as Craft and Smith iced the game at the end.
What can we learn from this performance? Not much that Buckeye fans didn't already know. When Deshaun Thomas struggles to score efficiently, Ohio State will probably struggle to beat good teams, or put away bad ones. After a few less than outstanding offensive performances though, Lenzelle Smith Jr was able to come up huge in a big way, just like Sam Thompson did the last time Thomas struggled.
We also know that Amir Williams, Sam Thompson and other Buckeyes are capable of flashes of greatness, but have been unable to sustain it throughout an entire game. This game was yet another testament to the fact that winning on the road in the Big Ten, even at Nebraska, is no easy feat.
Like the Penn State game, it wasn't always a thing of beauty, but the Buckeyes found a way to notch another tough Big Ten W and will likely head into their big showdown at Michigan as a top 10 team in the polls again. After the disaster at Illinois, Ohio State still finds itself very much in the thick the Big Ten race and a top 3 seed in the tournament at the start of February.
Buckeye Fans would likely be happy to take that, warts and all.