David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Just like the last two meetings in Evanston, Ohio State found just enough offense from Lenzelle Smith's barrage of threes to overcome a sluggish offensive performance and the Northwestern Wildcats.
Lenzelle Smith opened the game with a bullet, burying Northwestern in a pile of three pointers to help build a 7 point halftime lead. The Buckeyes then came out cold in the 2nd half, letting Northwestern climb back and even take a one point lead with under 4 minutes left, before a late defensive push and a surge from Deshaun Thomas finally pushed this one out of reach.
Smith ended with 24 points and 6 rebounds, on the strength of 6 three pointers, while Deshaun Thomas added 19 and 5, on 7-16 shooting. The rest of the team struggled mightily to get anything going, especially the Buckeye big men, who missed multiple point blank shots and began to show clear signs of frustration.
Things started off well enough for the Buckeyes. Lenzelle Smith buried a trio of three pointers in a 1:50 span to help stake out an early lead for Ohio State. The Buckeyes lead 12-7 at the 14:00 min mark thanks to Smith's sharpshooting, and forcing Northwestern to take difficult shots. A Thomas baseline move, a Smith jumper and a Shannon Scott steal and free throw pushed the margin to 17-7 early. The only early miscue was an embarrassing failed breakaway dunk by Smith, who was perhaps trying to channel his inner Sam Thompson and came up a little short on the dunk attempt.
Northwestern was held without a single point in the paint for the first 10 minutes of the game, and after Thomas hit two free throws to make the score 29-20 late in the first half, it appeared Ohio State had the game comfortably enough in hand. Smith then missed an three pointer that could be charitably described as a 'heat check', and Sobolewski drove the ball down the length of the court to grab a layup with 1.6 seconds remaining, to push the halftime margin to 29-22.
Ohio State actually had a quietly poor shooting first half, but was masked by Smith's brilliance. He led all scorers with 14 points at halftime. Deshaun Thomas had 6, but on 2-8 shooting. Ross added 5 points on a perfect 2-2 from the floor, and the rest of the team struggled mightily, (non Ross and Smith players were 3-16 from the floor). Amir Williams struggled with foul trouble, and the Buckeyes only shot 4-9 from the free throw line.
Fortunately for Ohio State, Northwestern was struggling as well. The Wildcats shot only 35% from the floor as a team. Sobolewski had 10 at halftime, while no other Wildcat had more than 1 made field goal. The Wildcats were outrebounded, had fewer assists, more fouls, more turnovers, but a few timely three pointers were keeping them just close to enough to be dangerous.
The start of the second half didn't go according to plan for Northwestern, as they picked up 3 team fouls in the first 38 seconds and 4 in the first two minutes, as Ohio State was able to stretch the margin to 33-22 from free throws. Then, the script flipped, and the game reverted to what Buckeye fans have come to fear when the schedule shows a trip to Evanston.
The threes stopped falling for Ohio State, and their big men were unable to finish at the rim or provide higher percentage shot opportunities. A single Sam Thompson three was the only field goal the Buckeyes could muster over a nearly 6 minute span, while Northwestern rode hot three point shooting from Demps and Sobolewski to get as close as 36-34. Ravenel missed another point black shot, and nearly earned a technical for yelling at the refs, a move that resulted in his quick removal from the game and a Brian Kelly-esque dressing down from Thad Matta.
Northwestern actually grabbed their first lead of the game at the 10 minute mark, as Kale Abrahamson nailed a one-foot three pointer as the shot clock expired to grab a 41-40 lead. A tip in and a Lenzelle 3 quickly pushed the margin back to 45-41 Ohio State, but Northwestern refused to go away. Reggie Hearn (8 points) drilled a three pointer with 3:57 left to give Northwestern a 48-49 lead.
That was as close as the Wildcats would get though. Smith answered with an immediate dagger three of his own, and an Aaron Craft jumper in the lane gave Ohio State a 53-49 advantage. The Buckeye's defense completely clamped down after that, forcing multiple steals over the last two minutes, pushing the pace, and finding Thomas in transition or driving to the basket to give Ohio State the ultimate cushion they needed. A late 9-2 run was too much for the Wildcats to overcome.
The frontcourt performance was certainly underwhelming, and Buckeye fans may be right to worry about Deshaun's inefficiency as of late, but at the end of the day, Ohio State was able to turn up the defensive efficiency when they absolutely had to, and got a great performance from the proverbial "second scorer" that Ohio State badly needs this season. It didn't win any style points, but style points don't give you any extra points in the Big Ten standings. For now, Ohio State survives and moves on, with two more chances to get huge wins to boost their RPI and potential bracket situation.